Mapinguari of Brazilian Folklore
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The Amazon rainforest is 6.7 million square kilometers (2.587 million miles). It covers an area too large for any of us to really wrap our heads around it. Just imagine how much may be hiding there that none of us know about. So, it shouldn't come as a surprise to know that tales and legends of all manner of strange things have been passed down through generations of people living in the rainforest. Among these, the stories of the mapinguari stand out—you'll see why in a minute.
Before we proceed, take a quick listen on how to pronounce mapinguari over at Forvo.com. That way, if you are ever snatched up by one, you can correctly scream the name of it as your last word.
Mapinguari's Stomping Grounds
According to the various legends, mapinguari's favorite stomping grounds are essentially the entire Amazon rainforest. The Amazon stretches across nine countries: Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. And, thanks to deforestation and, well, humans, it represents over half of the planet's remaining rainforests. Most of the Amazon remains unexplored or only superficially studied. Dense vegetation, hazardous terrains, vast river systems, and sheer size make exploration daunting.
The Amazon is home to an estimated 390 billion individual trees divided into about 16,000 species. Those who study it believe that one in ten known species on Earth can be found there, including around 2.5 million insect species, tens of thousands of species of plants, and over 2,000 types of birds and mammals. It's a biodiversity haven unlike anything else on the planet, and I didn't even mention the Amazon River—which, by volume, is the world's largest river.
Over 350 indigenous groups of people live in the Amazon, with about 60 of the groups living in voluntary isolation, choosing to maintain minimal contact with the outside world.
It's estimated that only 1% of the plants in the Amazon have been studied for medicinal properties, even though the rainforest has already provided the world with countless medicinal ingredients—like quinine, novocaine, vincristine (chemotherapy drug), and cortisone.
The name "mapinguari" comes from the Nheengatu language, also known as Tupi or Tupinambá—an indigenous language of the Tupi people of Brazil. Historically, Nheengatu was a lingua franca in vast parts of the Amazon region during the European colonization (aka, "fuck you, we're gonna kill everything and take all your shit because we can") period, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries.
a language adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different
Jesuit missionaries used Nheengatu extensively for evangelization, and it played a significant role in fostering communication between indigenous tribes and colonizers.
However, Nheengatu's prominence diminished over time, especially with the rise of Portuguese as the dominant language. While it is no longer widely spoken, efforts are ongoing to revive and preserve this vital part of Brazil's cultural and linguistic heritage.
An Encounter With a Mapinguari
Ever wanted to visit the Amazon? I'm sure you have a sense of wanderlust, a deep yearning to explore the untouched and spend time unraveling the world's mysteries. Imagine that this year, your heart sets its compass on the rainforest. With your trusty backpack and an old map, you hop on a flight to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
You arrive in the Amazon and gape at the verdant canopy, your mind racing at its countless secrets. You find a local guide, buy some supplies, and skip off into the dense forest. That night, you set up camp, and you sit by the fire with your guide as they share tales of the region—one of them a strange story of a creature called mapinguari that has a single eye like a cyclops and a mouth on its stomach.
Your curiosity piqued, you lean in and ask more of the mapinguari. With a solemn look, your guide recounts tales of those who have gone missing, search parties finding eery backward-facing footprints, and a haunting cry that silences all the noises in the jungle.
Feeling a chill, you decide story time is over, and you go to bed. You zip up your tent, snuggle into your sleeping bag, and close your eyes.
A distant cry of an unknown animal fills the air.
The stench of something foul wafts in.
Chuckling to yourself about the mapinguari, you peek outside your tent to check out the noise and smell. Your flashlight illuminates the area around your tent, revealing enormous footprints that seem...backward. You follow the trail of prints for a short distance, shaking your head at the trick your guide must be playing on you.
A looming shadow appears, blocking out the night sky.
You point your flashlight at it, only to find a massive humanoid creature.
From its head, a single eye stares back at you. And then, you spot it: a gaping maw, not on its face—but on its abdomen. It opens, and the same horrible cry you heard in your tent reverberates around you, deafens you, and darkness engulfs everything.
You are dead.
But, congratulations, because you met a mapinguari.
What Is a Mapinguari?
Its defining facial feature is at the forefront of the tales surrounding the mapinguari: a single, cyclopean eye placed squarely in the middle of its forehead. This lone eye has earned the creature an otherworldly reputation, painting a picture of a being not quite fitting the natural order.
Perhaps the most unsettling feature of the mapinguari is the gaping maw, said to be located not on its face but eerily in its abdomen. This peculiarity adds an almost nightmarish quality to the creature's descriptions, giving it an edge of unpredictability in encounters.
Adding to the mapinguari's odd nature are its backward-facing feet, a detail that confounds trackers and locals alike. These twisted appendages not only make its tracks unique but also serve as a deceptive tool, confusing anyone trying to decipher its direction of movement. Tricky, tricky, mapinguari.
The rainforest, usually alive with the cacophony of countless creatures, is said to fall eerily silent at the cry of the mapinguari. This haunting sound, which can be heard over vast distances, induces a stillness in the forest, supposedly freezing animals in their tracks.
Often, before the cry of the mapinguari is heard, its presence is announced by an overpowering, foul odor. So potent is this stench that there are tales of it being strong enough to render a person unconscious, making encounters with the creature as much a test of one's olfactory endurance as one's courage.
Aside from the ear-piercing cry and overwhelming stench, the mapinguari is supposed to have thick, shaggy fur—somewhat reminiscent of what scientists believe a prehistoric giant sloth had. Mapinguari also have long, menacing claws.
If that wasn't enough, stories say that the mapinguari's hide is impervious to bullets, making it seemingly invincible.
So, if you ever encounter one, you're as good as dead.
Mapinguari's Extended Family
Creatures like the mapinguari aren't alone in the world of legends and folklore. Every corner of the globe (which is a weird saying because globes are spherical...) has tales of large, furry, humanoid creatures.
In North America, we have Bigfoot (aka, Sasquatch). It's often described as ape-like, standing between 6 and 9 feet tall (~2 to 3 meters), and covered in brown or reddish fur. Theories on Bigfoot range from an undiscovered ape to intelligent, interdimensional aliens.
In the Himalayas, legends of the Yeti have some similarities. It's often portrayed as a large, bipedal creature with thick fur. Sightings of it have been going on for a long time and continue today.
Over in Australia, there's a creature called the Yowie that's supposedly a tall, hairy, bipedal animal with a pronounced brow, huge feet, and a fearsome demeanor. Folklore of it predates European settlement.
In Mongolia, there are tales of the Almas—a hominid-like creature. Unlike some other Bigfoot types, the Almas are frequently described as more human-like in behavior and are occasionally seen wearing primitive clothing and sometimes interacting with locals.
Over in the remote forests of Siberia, there are legends of a creature known as the Chuchunya. It's described as tall, ape-like, and covered with dark fur.
Note that none of the creatures I just mentioned are said to have backward feet. But backward feet are common in tales of evil, malicious creatures. The Churel in folklore from India, the Curupira of Brazilian mythology, the Leyak of Indonesia, the Tikbalang of Filipino folklore, and the Lusca of the Caribbean—just to name a few—all have backward feet, and all are very dangerous to humans.
The mouth in the abdomen, though? That one isn't very common—pushing the stories of the mapinguari far more into horror territory than any of the Bigfoot-like cousins around the world.
Much of the folklore around these creatures goes way back in history, making the entire collection of worldwide stories pretty strange. Are they all just stories? Are the legends echoes of prehistoric animals? Or, disturbingly, are some of these tales true?
If you ever find yourself in the Amazon at night and you hear a haunting cry, smell a foul stench, and see giant backward footprints, what would you do?
Relevant & Related
- There are a shocking number of documented sights of the mapinguari.
- Who doesn't love a good nature documentary? Try World of the Wild | Episode 1: The Amazon Rainforest and Uncharted - The Beautiful World of the Amazon.
- As I mentioned above, the Amazon has all sorts of odd things, some detailed in 10 Strangest Things Found In The Amazon.
- Learn more about indigenous languages in Brazil in Tupi | The Brazilian Lost Language.
- Want to read more about the Nheengatu language? Here's a good one (beware, this opens a PDF): Historical Development of Nheengatu (Língua Geral Amazônica).
- Looking for novels set in the Amazon? Give these a look: Amazonia by James Rollins | Into the Jungle by Erica Ferencik | Lost in the Jungle: A Harrowing True Story of Adventure and Survival by Yossi Ghinsberg
- And, of course, horror films with a rainforest (or jungle) setting.
- For other legends in the area, check out these other articles: El Silbón of Los Llanos in South America | El Peuchen of Mapuche Mythology | La Patasola of South American Folklore | Coffin Joe of Brazil | La Llorona of Mexico City | El Coco, El Cucuy: The Child Eater | Templo Mayor, Human Sacrifice, and Cihuateteo of Mexico City | Milicent Patrick & Her Enduring Design of the Creature from the Black Lagoon