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Myths and legends guarded by Peru’s Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon, apart from housing the most amazing biodiversity, is also home to a myriad of magical myths and mysterious occurrences. I was fortunate enough to have lived in the southern part of the Peruvian Amazon in the Madre de Dios region for 5 months, and I was always captivated by the many mysterious stories and anecdotes locals told me.

I would like to narrate some of these tales which will hopefully have the same enchanting effect on you as they had on me, perhaps even to the extent that you may begin sensing the rainforest’s hot and humid air; hear the buzz, chirp and growl of the animals; and you want to pull out your machete and cut down that ripe bunch of bananas.


El Tunchi

This is one of the spirits that protects the rainforest, and more specifically it is said to be the spirit of people that took their last breath inside the rainforest. The technique of El Tunchi is to whistle a certain tune, always the same short melody, and if you chime in by whistling the exact same tune, the spirit will appear, its wrath will fall upon you and terrorize you.

If you are well-behaved and respect nature by not harming flora and fauna, El Tunchi will just scare you a little and move on. However, if you mow down trees like there’s no tomorrow, pollute the air or displace animals from their habitat, then watch out and take heed! The best advice that even the locals follow religiously, is not to answer its whistle, thus not giving it a chance to “play” with you.

La lupuna

The lupuna is a tree found in various parts of the Amazon. It is one of those beautiful giants of the Amazon, grand, imposing, and well rooted in the jungle’s soil. Its trunk can be as wide as 10 meters (33 ft) when given the time to grow. The lupuna distinguishes itself from other tropical trees because of its “belly”, a part of the trunk that is wider than the rest and bears some resemblance to a human abdomen.

And it has another characteristic: its spirit is also widely known to be a protector of the rainforest. Unfortunately, it is not entirely safe from deforestation but local loggers and lumberjacks are very careful about which lupuna to cut down, because if they choose the wrong species, the tree will take revenge…

You must also show your respect for the lupuna in other ways, which is reflected by the following story:

A local woman was hiking through the jungle and felt a basic human urge. She squatted down near a big tree and relieved her bladder. She returned to town, unaware of what was about to unfold. At nighttime her stomach began to hurt and swelled up to painful proportions. The discomfort kept her from sleeping that night and throughout the next day the pain got worse and the swelling increased.

She called for the help of a shaman, who asked her what she had been doing before the pain started. Had she, by any chance, urinated near a lupuna? The poor woman confirmed and the shaman explained that the lupuna was punishing her for showing such disrespect. “The only solution”, he said, “is to ask the lupuna for forgiveness. If you don’t your stomach will burst and you will die”.

And with these words he went on his way looking for the moody lupuna. The woman waited in agony, hoping that the shaman would succeed in his mission. He found the tree according to her description and spent the night at the lupuna’s feet carrying out his rituals, asking the powerful tree for forgiveness. He took a knife and carefully cut the lupuna’s “belly” and took some of the juice that trickled from the wound. In the morning he returned with this potion and told the punished woman to drink it. Almost immediately the swelling and agonizing pain subsided. By the evening she was up on her feet again, good as new, and with a very important lesson learned!


Sirens

Many rivers feed the Amazon, serving as water highways to transport people and goods. They are intricate eco-systems and home to many fish species. They are also the natural habitat of the infamous, dreaded anaconda. These rivers have their own myths and legends, including the enigmatic sirens.

Traditionally, men are working in the forest for weeks on end, whether to collect Brazil nuts, taking out rubber or trees, or mining gold. During all this time there is not a single woman in sight. Surrounded by nothing but dense forest and male colleagues for weeks, one can imagine their longing for little female contact. Many have reported that they saw beautiful women singing to them from the opposite shore, trying to lure them to the other side of the river. Some couldn’t resist and drowned in the river’s swift currents. The one’s who withstood the attraction told us this tale.

During the rubber boom at the beginning of the 20th century, legends also tell of lonely and desperate men who trapped pink dolphins living in these rivers and lakes, and made love to them. This would then transform the men into male sirens who went to live with the dolphins in the depths of the river. This is said to be the reason why numerous rubber extractors simply disappeared and their bodies were never found.


El Chullanchaqui

This little creature known as Chullanchaqui is also there to protect the rainforest. He is a farmer, and if you come across a clearing in the forest, you might be standing on one of Chullanchaqui’s farms known as “chacras”. If you return to the same place months later, you will find that it is still a clear area, as if someone had been weeding it and took care of it. Chullanchaqui is said to have a very unique appearance: a tiny midget-like man that leaves a peculiar trace. Those who have seen his tracks say he has a tiny left foot and his right side leaves a round hole behind, apparently the mark of a wooden leg. When he appears out of nowhere, it is often to confuse you, he could be calling you, you will barely get a glimpse of him every now and then, so you keep following him. And when you realize that you’ve lost his trail, you are utterly and completely lost in the dense forest.

A farmer told me this story about an encounter he had with Chullanchaqui one night:

“I was on my way back from a hunting trip. It was about 9 o’clock at night, it was dark, and this is a dangerous time to be in the jungle since it also marks the time when animals like snakes and tigers begin their own hunt for prey. I was moving as fast as I could. It was then when I heard someone call my name. It startled me and I held my lantern in the direction from where I had heard the voice. There it was: a small, sturdy little person walking away from me. Because of the darkness and the distance I couldn’t see him very well.

At first I thought it was my neighbor playing a joke on me, so I called out his name and started following him. He moved very fast ans brisk for a little fella that he was and I had a hart time keeping up with him. I told him to slow down, still thinking it could be my neighbor, and I kept running after him as fast as I could. This went on for some time when suddenly I stumbled over something and brought me to my knees. I looked down for a moment trying to find out what it was. When I raised my head again, the creature was gone. Not a sound, not a trace, gone. It seems as if he had fallen off the face of the earth. Then it dawned on me: I just had an encounter with Chullanchaqui.”


What are these creatures really telling us?

All creatures in these myths have one thing in common: They are there to protect flora and fauna of the rainforest from mankind’s harm and exploitation. Whether you believe in these myths or not, they teach us to respect and care for the mighty jungle, and if we do so, it will continue sharing its benevolent powers with us. Don’t forget that the rainforest filters the world’s polluted air, and it is one of the most important parts of the world’s ecosystem. Thus it is our responsibility to listen to the message of these creatures and protect the “lungs of the planet”.

Article by Elise van der Heijden

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