El Peuchen of Mapuche Mythology
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The cultures of South America have such a rich history that it makes it challenging to hone in on any one particular subject. Every piece of folklore, mythology, creature, monster, and history of every culture has stories that have been told and retold countless times. Many of these have evolved and changed, sitting just below the surface of modern stories as nearly invisible roots. The first Harry Potter novel featured a basilisk, a snake with a lethal gaze. Accounts and descriptions of such a creature can be traced back to at least the writings of Pliny the Elder in Ancient Rome.
Looking back on mythological creatures throughout history, specific themes arise, like a snake that can paralyze its prey with a single look. In modern-day southern Chile and Argentina, there's a legendary snake-like creature with such a gaze, but the terror doesn't stop there.
Pronunciation & Spelling of El Peuchen
As always, it's hard to remember a word when you can't spell or pronounce it. For our purposes, thankfully, Forvo user urso170, a native Spanish speaker with a Latin American accent, has provided a recording for us: El Peuchen pronunciation. If you don't want to listen to a native speaker saying the word, then this phonetic spelling should get you a rough approximation.
Pea-You-Shin or Pea-You-Chin
Several cultures in South America have stories of El Peuchen, and due to dialect and language differences, there are a few ways it's spelled in the Latin alphabet: Piuchen, Pihuchen, Pihuychen, Pihuichen, Piguchen, Piwuchen, or Peuchen. If you go searching on your own, you're most likely to encounter the "El Peuchen" spelling, which is why I've chosen that one to go with here.
Now that we have pronunciation and spelling out of the way, you'd better learn to say "El Peuchen" very quickly because you'll only have a fraction of a second to scream and point to warn your friends if you ever encounter one.
The Legend of El Peuchen
Imagine yourself walking through the forest, breathing in the fresh, earthy smell of moss and cypress.
Suddenly, you stop, unsure of what's happened but certain something has changed.
You tilt your head, listening. The birds. The birds have stopped singing. In place of the chittering, you hear a low, steady sound on the wind, like a single wooden whistle.
The sound gets closer.
A dark shadow crosses over you, blocking the warm sun that touched your skin only a moment ago.
You look up to the sky, to the shadow.
It takes a while for your eyes to take in what you see, for your brain to begin to comprehend the sight above you. A huge shadow.
A swirl of blues and reds and yellows.
A flurry of feathers and scales.
Golden eyes lock on yours.
Your calves and thighs tighten, cramping, causing both your legs to plant firmly onto the ground. You try to lift your left leg, then your right, but they refuse to move. Every muscle in your body seizes and begins burning as your brain fires signal after signal for your body to move, to run.
Your legs remain rooted, your arms frozen, your eyes locked into a gaze with a giant creature flying above you as it lazily slithers down from the sky.
A massive snake of blue and black scales, with wings of red, yellow, and blue feathers, glides toward you.
You feel two sharp pains in your neck, like needles the size of nails driven into your flesh.
Your vision darkens as your body grows colder and colder. A shiver begins, then halts, your muscles still refusing to do anything except burn as they stay flexed.
Feathers and scales cross your vision as the world around you tilts and fades to black.
Congratulations, you've just seen El Peuchen, a legendary shapeshifting creature of the Mapuche peoples of southern Chile and southwestern Argentina. Unfortunately for you, it also killed you before you even knew what was happening.
Stories of El Peuchen cover a good portion of the southern tip of South America, and I found accounts of them as far as the northern tip of Antarctica.
Descriptions of El Peuchen primarily come from the Mapuche of South America, but the Chilote peoples of the Chilean Archipelago also tell some stories. Accounts vary somewhat, but it is typically described as a bird with the shape of a snake or a snake with wings. El Peuchen is a shapeshifter that can take the form of anything it desires but often takes the shape of a monstrous flying snake that makes strange whistling noises as it flies through the air. Larger than a man, it swoops down to feed on blood, particularly that of goats and sheep, but sometimes humans. Its gaze paralyzes its prey, making hunting a simple matter.
The word "peuchen" in Chile is also used to describe the vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus). But, really, there's just no way to confuse one of these tiny adorable bats with a massive blood-sucking snake with wings.
Some theories state that El Peuchen is related to or possibly even the same creature (it can shapeshift, after all) as the legendary chupacabra.
After a lot of digging, I found that one of the earliest written records of El Peuchen still available comes from a Spanish—Mapuche dictionary titled "Araucano-Spanish, Spanish-Araucano Dictionary" from 1916 by Father Félix de Augusta. He was a missionary who spent years with the Mapuche people studying the Mapuche language and defending the rights of indigenous people.
I tracked one of the few rare and out-of-print copies down, ordered it, and I'm waiting on it to arrive. I'll take photos of it when it comes. Supposedly, in the dictionary, Father Félix de Augusta describes El Peuchen as a beast with stories dating back to 600-500 B.C. around the origin of the South American Mapuche culture. According to Father Félix, the sound it makes is "piurüt piurüt."
[It took two months, but the book arrived! See the update at the bottom of this page.]
An even earlier mention of El Peuchen comes from 1765 in Father Andrés Febrés's Arte de la lengua general del reyno de Chile. Thankfully, the full text of Father André's book is available online at Darwin's Beagle Library.
Serpiente-vilu: otra que vuela-pihuychen.
—Febres, Andrés. 1765. Arte de la lengua general del reyno de Chile.
Father Andrés only mentions it once, with the "pihuychen" spelling. If I'm reading this entry correctly, then the meaning of the entry is this:
Serpiente = Spanish for "snake" or "serpent"
vilu = Mapuche for "snake"
otra que vuela = Spanish for "another thing that flies"
pihuychen = Mapuche word for the creature
An interesting theory on the linguistic origin of the word "peuchen" comes from the Mapuche words "piwu" meaning "to dry" and "ché" meaning "person." Literally translated, "Peuchen" means "to dry a person out."
About the Mapuche
Mapuche means "people of the land," and they have lived in South America for at least 2,000 years. The Mapuche are in present-day south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina, including parts of present-day Patagonia. Their influence used to extend from Aconcagua Valley to Chiloé Archipelago to Puelmapu. Their spoken language is known as "Mapudungun," and it is a dying language as there aren't many people who are learning the language today. In Chile, the Mapuche make up over 80% of the indigenous population but only 9% of the total Chilean population.
I can't stuff an entire culture into a single article, so I'd encourage you to dig up some information on your own as their entire history is fascinating. Here are two good places to start if you're interested:
- Mini Documentary on YouTube has a 3-minute visit with a few Mapuche, where you can listen to Mapuche in their own words. (I've linked to archive.org because the original on YouTube is giving a 403-forbidden as of November 1st, 2022.)
- The Mapuche are struggling against the Chilean government—Chile's Secret War: Its First Nations are Fighting for Their Ancestral Lands | Foreign Correspondent.
Relevant & Related
Myth, legend, and folklore—subtle nuances differentiate these concepts from one another, but one thing holds true for all of them: they are damned fascinating. These myths, legends, and folklore get exceptionally eerie when stories from ancient cultures cross over, sharing details when there's no evidence that the cultures had any contact with one another. Traditional storytelling from every culture around the world has inspired everything from books and artwork to music, games, and even film.
Perhaps it's the human psyche at work, deep primal fears bubbling up to the surface into stories with similarities, or perhaps there's something else to it. For El Peuchen, here are a few creatures from other cultures with some eerie similarities.
- The Gorgons of Greek Mythology
- Herodotus of Ancient Greek also wrote of a flying snake creature called "ophis pterotos" in Arabia. It was a breed of feathery-winged snake that guarded the frankincense groves of Arabia. They were sometimes called Ophies Amphipterotoi or "Serpent with Two-Pairs of Wings."
- Learn about Quetzalcoatl The Feathered Serpent of Aztec & Mayan Mythology
- Creatures that can paralyze victims with a look: The Basilisk and the Cockatrice - What is the difference?
- The History Channel has put up a full episode on chupacabra: MonsterQuest: Blood Sucking Chupacabra Attacks! (S2, E8) | Full Episode | History
- One of the world's largest predators ever, Titanoboa: The 42 Foot Mega Snake
- And, of course, dragons. Extra Credit on YouTube has an excellent mini-documentary on the origins of dragons: Dragons - The Origin of Dragons - Extra Mythology
September 05, 2022: Update On El Peuchen
The Mapuche - Spanish dictionary arrived from Chile! First, some photos, and then I'll explain what the Spanish means.
Original Spanish From Father Augusta
Below is the original Spanish as seen in the Mapuche - Español dictionary. This might be the unaltered version from Father Augusta in ~1916.
piwichen |, s., (probabl. comp. de piwn y de ché) animal imaginario del cual se da la siguiente descripción: "Tiene el cuerpo de forma cilíndrica alargada, como de culebra. Con el tiempo le crecen alas, y vueloa, pero carece sus víctimas. Su silbido, que suena <<piurüt piurüt>>, es anuncio de muerte segura, si la persona a quien se acerca el bicho perverso no alcanza mirarlo antes de ser vista por él. Cuando infesta una casa, ienen que morir todos al otro lado de un agua corriente. Hay quienes pretenden haberlo cogido en una fuente con vino. Además hace sobresaliente papel en las visiones y supersticiones de las machis>>. Se supone que un murcié'ago vampiro que existe en Chile haya dado origen al mito del—. Atribúyesele la mortandad entre los animales: — apɘmɘñmaneu ñi kulliñ El — (me) ha acabado con mis animales. ||
Father Augusta's Entry Translated Into English
I've translated this into English. Translations between languages aren't simple word replacements, even in languages of the same families. So, I've done my best to fit within a native English understanding of the entry.
(probably composed of the Mapuche words piwn and ché)
an imaginary animal described as follows: "It has an elongated cylindrical body, like a snake. In time, it grows wings and flies, but it lacks feathers. It makes a hissing that sounds like "piurüt piurüt," which means certain death if the person approached by it doesn't have a chance to see it before it is seen by it. When it infests a house, all residents will die, and their only means of escape is to move to the other side of running water. There are some who claim to have caught it with a bowl of wine. It also plays an important role in the visions and superstitions of the machis. It is believed that a vampire bat that exists in Chile may have been the origin of the myth. Cattle deaths are attributed to it.
A few additional notes:
- piwun means "to dry" or "to parch"
- ché means "person" or "people"
- machi are a traditional healer and religious leader in Mapuche culture. You can read more about machi here.
- Putting those together indicates something like "to dry a person"—which sounds very much like a vampire.
- Also noteworthy is Father Augusta's description explicitly states that the creature does not have feathers.
If I happen across anything else regarding the creature, I'll post another update. If anyone out there has any more information on it, please get in touch.