Today's post is about some Patagonian monsters,Goshg-e, Oókempam and Elëngassën
Argentine explorer Ramón Lista compiled some Aonikenk legends in the 1890s, while there were still living in their original territory before being overtaken by Western “civilization”, and wrote about a strange gigantic monster: Goshg-e:
Goshg-e, sows terror and despair. Every night a child disappears; the monster also devours the stray hunters. El-lal [sic] goes after it and finds it at the edge of the forest […] but the giant is invulnerable […] the hero’s arrows splinter or bounce […] off the creature.
Ramón Lista (1856-1897). Argentine explorer, military and scientist. He explored Patagonia between 1877 and 1887, and also governor of the National Territory of Santa Cruz between 1887 and 1892, where he wed an Aonikenk who gave him a daughter. He died at the hands of his guides while exploring the tropical Chaco jungles in northern Argentina.
Elal, was the Aonikenk’s (Southern Tehuelche) hero and demigod. He was the son of Teo, a cloud, and the enormous monster Nosjthej who raped her and later finding her pregnant tore her belly open to devour the baby. Fortunately Terr-werr, a field mouse who was Elal’s grandmother, saved the baby boy and hid him in her burrow.
Elal grew into a fine strong fellow who invented the bow and arrow, hunting, fire and cooking. All of which he taught to men, civilizing them in a Promethian manner. He thus assumed a leading role in their religion replacing Kooch, the creator of the Universe.
He would bring peace to Patagonia and confronting Nosjthej like Zeus did with Chronos, he killed him. His work done, he flew away on a swan to Paradise.
Elal was also a Patagonian “monster slayer” a hunter of megafauna whose tent was covered with trophies including “the shells of gigantic armadillos”, but Gosgh-e proved difficult to kill.
We find reference to a similar creature in the Aonikenk’s oral tradition regarding Oókempam, a monster that was:
the shape and size of the […] it walked on four legs and was covered by a thick and very hard carapace, which was not pierced by arrows or the sharp claws of the puma.
Its only weak spots were its unprotected ankles, an Achilles-like feature that it shared with the Fuegian monsters.
Both Goshg-e and Oókempam were wild man-eating, child abducting, arrow-proof devils, shrouded by a tough armadillo like shell.
This last feature (the armadillo shell) is shared by another monster, Elëngassën . The first one to report it was a Swiss rancher and naturalist, Jorge Claraz (1832-1930), who in 1866 set out to explore the interior of the territories of Rio Negro and Chubut. In his diary he rendered the natives, their language, and their customs. He also mentioned an “Elengassem[*] cave” close to Segunda Angostura, the second “narrows” of the Negro River, near to what is now the town of Guardia Mitre in Rio Negro province, Argentina.
This cave was once inhabited by a strange creature, the Elëngassën, which he described as:
An animal similar to a man -it has a human figure- but is very big. It has hands, big legs, it walks like a man and is covered like a peludo[#] with an enormous hard shell -which is of stone- these beings existed before, but now they are extinct. They were harmless and never attacked. But when one came near them -especially at dusk- they threw stones. These strange beings lived in caves.
[*] Claraz wrote indistinctively Elemgassen, Éllengassen and Elemgassem. We will spell it Elëngassën.
[#]“Peludo” is one of the armadillos that live in Argentina. The defining feature of armadillos is their “shell”, a series of bands of keratinous (horny) plates interspaced with flexible skin. These cover the animal’s back and head. The Patagonian species is the “pichi” (Zaedyus pichiy) or dwarf armadillo.
He visited the site, but it had caved in and was filled with debris. He could not verify if it held any bones or native paintings. It was set in a very strategic location, in the narrows, above a “very ancient road, that was abandoned because of Elemgassen. It was not possible to pass along it at night […] without being bothered terribly by the animal that threw stones, which is why they made a road above it.”
Ten years later old Tehuelche chief Sinchel showed Francisco Moreno this cave stating that it was the “lair of one of these monsters”, and he too noted that “to avoid meeting it they had made a very difficult road with a detour of nearly one league [5 km or 3.1 mi.] over a hill”. The new path was made by “the women […] who were afraid of the animal because it threw stones at them and it ‘growled ugly’ insulting them.”
Francisco Pascasio Moreno (1852-1919). Argentine scientist. He explored the Patagonia several times in the 1870s, being named in 1877 Director of the Buenos Aires Anthropological Museum, which in 1884 became the La Plata Natural History Museum. He is usually known as “Perito” Moreno (Perito means "specialist, expert") for his key role during the border conflict between Argentina and Chile from 1892 to 1902 which defused an inevitable war. He donated a vast tract of land that the Argentine government gave him as a reward for his services and formed Argentina’s first National Park. He served as a member of Congress.
This was not the only one; the beast had lived in several places. Claraz mentioned that “Éllengassen’s most beautiful home” was located at Yaulemtzca –close to current Llama Niyeo (41°54’ S, 68°24’ W). He visited it and dug there finding some bones and ancient rock art. Moreno also found many other caves that the natives believed were “anciently inhabited by the Elengassen.”
Identifying the beast
Claraz was persuaded by its appearance that this gigantic armadillo-shaped being was the extinct glyptodon; a Pleistocene creature had a tough bony plated shell the size of a small car and weighed up to two tons.
They thrived until about 11,000 years ago when, at the end of the Ice Age, they suddenly became extinct.
He believed that it was man-eating and wrote that “the large extant species […] the Paraguayan “tatú”[*] […] feeds on cattle […] I myself saw two peludos devour a human corpse close the sea coast”.
[*] Tatú is the Guaraní name for the largest existing armadillo, the Giant Tatú or Tatú Carreta (Priodontes maximus) which can weigh up to 60 kg (130 lb.) and measure 1,5 m long (5 ft.).
Moreno described them as “human monsters (Ellengassen) covered with a shell like the tatú”. The creature was:
covered with an enormous shell, very thick, similar to that of the current armadillos, probably a glyptodon […] it according to some, it had a human face and according to others it was a man of gigantic size, with its back covered with a shield, so it could only be wounded on its belly.
So both Moreno and Claraz believed it to be a glyptodon.
Poor candidates for monsters. Glyptodons were not blood thirsty predators, but placid grazing herbivores that spent their lives munching the tough steppe grass. The Glyptodontidae family comprised many similar species, all related to current anteaters, sloths and armadillos.
The doedicurus for instance, whose remains have been found in Patagonia, measured 4 m (13 ft.) long and 1,5 m (5 ft.) high. It had clawed paws and was covered by a dome-shaped bony body armor. Like all Glyptodontidae it had short yet strong jaws with rear grinding teeth.
The smaller -2,5 m (8.2 ft.) long- Pampatheium typum lived in the open grasslands and weighed 225 kg (496 lb.).
Similar to those of armadillos, its shell consisted of tough bands. It burrowed in deep tunnels and may have eaten worms, eggs and carrion.
Glyptodons, like all the megafauna, lived in the open grasslands of the then not so arid Patagonian steppe; and though some had a mace like tail, they were not dangerous. Their claws were probably used to dig up roots or tubers, and their teeth did not have fangs. Being vegetarian they were more likely preys than predators. They must have huddled up inside the safety of their shells when attacked.
Humans interacted with them and depicted them in their rock art, and even Moreno discovered a painting resembling “the glyptodon.”
These hefty armored animals were definitively not dangerous man-eating monsters. We can only wonder which was the beast that instilled fear into the minds of the Fuegians and the Aonikenk. The beast that inspired the myths of Kawtcho, Ayayema, Shoort, Elëngassën , Cushpij, Goshg-e and Oókempam.
A mystery lost in the dawn of time.
 Lista, R., (2006). Viaje a la Patagonia Austral (1879). Los indios tehuelches. Una raza que desaparece (1894). B. Aires: Continente-Pax. pp. 91 –4.
 Baleta, M., (2002). Cuentan Los Chonkes - Leyendas de la Patagonia Tehuelche. B. Aires: Zagier & Urruty. pp. 27.
 Hux, M., and; Casamiquela, R. (1988). Jorge Claraz. Diario De Viaje De Exploracion Al Chubut, 1865-1866. B. Aires: Ediciones Marymar.
 Claraz, G., (2008). Viaje al rio Chubut: Aspectos naturalísticos y etnológicos (1865-1866). B. Aires: Continente. pp. 173.
 Moreno, F., (1876). Viaje a la Patagonia Septentrional. [Conference]. B. Aires, Anales de la Sociedad Científica Argentina I.
 Moreno, E., (1979). Reminiscencias de Francisco P. Moreno. B. Aires: Eudeba.
pp. 105 and 129.
 Claraz, G., (2008). pp. 102.
 Ibid. pp. 157+
 Ibid. pp. 212.
 Papp, C. (2002). Die Tehuelche. Ein Ethnohistorischer Beitrag zu einer jahrhundertelangen Nicht-Begegnung. [Dissertation] Universitãt Wien. pp. 77. Citing: Moreno, F., (1882) Recuerdos de Viage en Patagonia. Montevideo.
Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©