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The Trolls, Witches & Sorcerers of Chile’s Huilliche

The Huilliche peoples have lived in this region of Chile for centuries and have held on to their beliefs in trolls, ghouls and mythological lore.

The archipelago of Chiloe in Chile is a green rolling land of yesteryear, with houses on stilts, endless succulent seafood, and numerous old wooden churches whose roofs look like the bottom of a boat, flipped upside down. The Huilliche peoples have lived in this region of Chile for centuries and have held on to their beliefs in trolls, ghouls and mythological lore.

The Huilliche, a branch of the Mapuche people in the northern half of Chile, arrived in Chiloe in the mid-1400s, about a century before the Spanish. Their language, Stesungun, is heavily influenced by the Spanish, but it is seldom spoken today. In Chiloe, the Huilliche form about 11 percent of the population, and live mostly in rural areas, where they fish and grow corn and potatoes. Generally their clothes, blankets and hats are woven in wool to protect them against the cold, and dyed with vegetable fibers.

Huilliche peoples were forced to convert into Catholicism, but their original beliefs remained, and have a strong emphasis on the Alwe, or spirits of their ancestors, and mythology.

Hans Tammemagi

A market in Chile where the Huilliche, a branch of the Mapuche people live in the northern half of the country.

Their Huilliche religion is not an institution; there are no priests or churches. Day-to-day lives are influenced by two groups. First, and foremost, are the brujos, witches (female) and sorcerers (male), who are are immensely powerful and can kill with their minds, transform into animals, and fly with the aid of a bodice made from the skin of a corpse. Even the most mundane events are related to these mystical creatures.

A tour guide explained that he once saw a jud-jud bird in a national park. He tried to take a photo, but the camera’s battery was dead. His Huilliche companion explained that the bird was a wizard, and, not wanting his photo taken, cursed the battery. In another case, a villager had extraordinary good luck. For example, fish fought to be caught in his nets, and his cow had twins twice in three years. To have such good fortune, his neighbors assumed he must be a sorcerer.

Another important person in the lives of the Huilliche is the machi, an indigenous healer. If there is an illness in the family, the machi is usually called, rather than a doctor, who applies poultices, potions and magic. If someone is near death, the machi may seek to expunge a basilisk, an evil reptile hatched from an egg of an old rooster that stays under the house and comes out at night to suck the air out of the sleepers.

The most colorful stories come from older people on more remote islands where customs and beliefs have held sway for centuries. The Trauco, for example, is a forest dwarf who lives in tree hollows and protects the forest. He covers himself in bark and is irresistible to virgins, a belief often used to explain unwed pregnancies in villages.

One dark, mist-enshrouded night, there were noises heard in the distance. A Huilliche explained it was the ghost ship Caleuche. He said it often sails in the fog and you can hear the music and rattling bones as its crew sings and dances drunkenly.

There are also pleasant myths. La Pincoya is a beautiful young woman with hair draped in kelp, who is much revered by fishermen. If she dances facing the sea, fish will be plentiful; if she dances facing land, the nets will be empty. If she appears before you, however, you must close your eyes and run, otherwise she will seduce you and take you to the bottom of the sea.

The mythology of the Huilliche derives from centuries of their presence in this region. It is a testament to their strength and spirituality.

This story was originally published on February 25, 2015.