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Guide to Patagonia's Monsters & Mysterious beings

I have written a book on this intriguing subject which has just been published.
In this blog I will post excerpts and other interesting texts on this fascinating subject.

Austin Whittall


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Guruvilu or Gurufilu the "Fox-Snake" water creature - Full Dossier

 


Today’s post is about the Guruvilu or Gurufilu (as I choose to write the name, the fox-snake, from the meaning of the Mapuche words that make up its name: “guru” = fox and “filu” = snake.

This is a distinctive creature, found in Northern Patagonia and also in Chile south of Valparaiso. I have not found any references regarding the Tehuelche people, but maybe the "water tiger" and the "iemisch" myths may be their way of describing the same creature.

The first written accounts on the fox-snake until 1880.

It was the Chilean Jesuit priest Felipe Gómez de Vidaurre who first wrote about this animal. In his book, published in 1789 (Historia geográfica, natural y civil del Reino de Chile), as quoted by Vicuña Cifuentes, he noted the following:

GURUVILU. Fox-snake, monstrous animal of some lakes in the kingdom [Chile in the colonial period was the kingdom or Reino de Chile]. The Araucanian [Mapuche] say that it swallows men. They do not agree upon its shape. Some make it long like a serpent with the head of a vixen; others nearly circular like an extended cow hide. I doubt that such an animal exists. [1][4]

Evidently Vidaurre had different sources who were talking about different animals. One of them seems to be the “Cuero” (cow hide) while the other is the Guruvilu (the slender fox headed being).

The creature was also reported by Luis de la Cruz during his 1806 trip across northern Patagonia from Antuco to Buenos Aires in Argentina. He wrote that his native guides had seen, in a lake, in northern Patagonia, “animals like cats that kill horses that are called nirribilos”.[10]

The next book to mention it was that of the Jesuit priest and naturalist, Juan Ignacio Molina (1810), he calls it a reptilian “Dragon”:

in certain Chilean lakes, an enormous fish or dragon can be found, that they name Ghyryvilu, that is, Vulpangue or fox-snake, which, they say is man-eating, and due to this they abstain from bathing in those lakes. They disagree in its appearance: some make it out to be long like a serpent with a fox head. [9]

The creature was also reported by Federico Barberá, a military commander in the Argentine war against the Puelche natives in the Pampas and close to the northern border of Patagonia. In the 1860s and 1870s, he had close contact with these “Araucanized” Tehuelche people, the Puelche. They had adopted the Mapuche language and maybe some of their myths. He wrote that their word Yhuayfilú described a “Dragon (or fabulous monster)”.[14] The filu part of the word is the Mapuche word for snake. I have not been able to find what Yhuay means.

The early 1900s reports.

A group of social scientists compiled Mapuche folklore in the early years of the XXth century. Below I transcribe their notes:

Vicuña Cifuentes.

Julio Vicuña Cifuentes wrote about the Guruvilu in two different books.
He writes the name Guirivilo or Nirivilo (though at one time he preferred Guirivilu or Nirivilu). He says it is the combination of the Mapuche words gúrú (mid sized vixen) and vilu (non venomous snake).[1]

He quotes Vicuña Mackenna, who in his 1877 book, De Valparaíso a Santiago (pp. 76), mentions a marshy lagoon at Viña del Mar (close to Santiago de Chile, well to the north of Patagonia) where “cueros […] swallow those unaware by wrapping them up in a sheet […] which the Chilean Indians call curuvilu” [1][4]

Though it is not quoted by Vicuña Cifuentes, Mackenna adds that: “curuvilu, horrible black snake that had the head of a fox and that inhabited the sea and freshwater ponds

Mackenna, like Vidaurre blends Cuero and fox-snake into one creature. But they are two distinct animals.

Black snake or fox snake?

Note that is Mapuche for black, thus curuvilu, as spelled by Mackenna, would be a black snake. This also neatly fits his description : “horrible black snake”.

It could also be a spelling mistake (a “C” instead of a “G” which transformed “Guru” into “Curu”).

For German Folklorist Bertha Kossler-Ilg, who lived most of her life in Patagonia, the Kuru-Filu, as she called it, was “a dark water animal” that is why the Mapuche word “kuru” = black was part of its name. [13]

In either case, the curuvilu despite having a different name, must be a fox-snake.

Vicuña Cifuentes also gives some local references [1][4]:

- At Coinco (34°16’S, 70°57’W):

it is a “water fox” that has a very long tail. They say that it is irritable and fierce and that sooner or later it avenges those that bother it throwing stones at it

- At Coihueco in Chillán (36°37’ S, 71°50’ W):

it is a water animal whose body is like that of a dog with a very long tail. It lives in reivers, and when it comes out of the water, which it seldom does, it shivers like if it was dying of cold

Tomás Guevara.


Folklorist Tomás Guevara’s describes the creature as follows (below is a reproduction of the text and an image of the beast) [3]:

Ngúrúvilu (fox snake), aquatic myth with surprising strength. The Mapuche imagination represents it as having a slim and small body, cat head and extremely long fox tail. It frequents the river fords and pools and with its tail it snares men and animals, dragging them to the bottom and drinks their blood. Due to its abundance it is perhaps the most dangerous denizen of the waters. [3]

Guevara includes an image and a footnote in which he states that Lehmann-Nitsche of the La Plata Museum (Argentina) believes that this creature is actually an otter Lutra felina and that this originated the Araucanian myth, also found in Argentina. [3] Below we will look into Lehmann-Nitsche’s theory.

Text and Image of Ngúrúvilu . From [3]

Guevara in his Historia (pp. 239 as cited by Vicu&ntild;a Cifuentes) says that :

The Negúruvilu is another monster similar in its appearance to a cat, armed with a very sharp claw in its tail. It lives in the deep and goes to the fords of the rivers and the shore of the great lakes to kill men and animals. To wrap them it stretches like a snake […] [1]

Guevara tells about a river in which many canoes were overturned at Melivilu, Maquehua (or is it Maquehua? Which is close to Temuco, Chile -38º41’ S, 72º25’ W) where a canoe suffered the same fate, but the man in it, who knew how to swim:

was taken by the tail of an animal, that squeezed him and pricked him. He took out a knife and cut off the animal’s tail. The tail was like two ‘varas’ [*] long: he took it: it was like a saw, it had like claws, what it took, it did not let go; it had the claws facing forward. That is why nobody escaped. Since then no other canoe was overturned.
The animal has the color of a fox, is small and its tail is very long. [6]

[*] “Vara” is an old Spanish unit of length equivalent to roughly 84 cm (33 in.). This tail was about 168 cm long [66 in].

The following map shows the places mentioned in the text and the region (colored yellow) where the Guruvilu has been sighted. Notice that its habitat and the territory of the Mapuche people coincide.

Guruvilu map
Map showing area where Guruvilu is said to live. © Copyright 2010 by Austin Whittall.

Lehmann-Nitsche.

In 1901, during the period when several expeditions were sent to hunt down the Patagonian mylodon (see my post on the Mylodon Saga), Robert Lehmann-Nitsche wrote an article in which he suggested that the mysterious surviving mylodon was in fact an otter.

He mentions a meeting in which he, a colleague and English explorer Hesketh Prichard (sent to hung the mylodon) met Florentino Ameghino (1854-1911), an eminent anthropologist, zoologist and paleontologist.

told us about correspondence of his brohter Carlos according to which the Patagonian Indians had seen the tracks of an animal with natatory membranes, besides, they called a misterious aquatic animal erefilú.

He believed that erefilú was the nurufilu or fox snake, written incorrectly. He then asked his Mapuche friend, Nahuelpi about this strange being, who told him the following:

The fox-snake lives in the water. It garbs people in the water. It has a tail withi which it grabs people. But if venerated, he does nothing.
There is a lake in the cordillera. There are many fox-snakes in this lake […] He saw the fox-snake […] it was swimming in the water when we saw it. It is small, its chest and belly, white; the tail is long.[7]

The lake was the Aluminé (39°14’ S, 70°55’ W) and the incident happened when Nahuelpi was eight years old (ca. 1880s).

Lehmann-Nitsche then criticizes Siemiradski [8]:

He has heard about the “Nervelu”, as he erroneously writes it; but all of his observations are so inexact and so lacking of reliability, that we do not give importance to the following, in which he transforms the “Nurufilu” in a griffin. He says the following “An evil spirit is called “Nervelu”; the Puelches especially, respect him a lot, even those who have been baptized; it has the shape of a great bird with a beak and claws of steel […]” [7]

Perhaps Siemiradski had the right name and description and that it was really another creature, a “terror bird” myth. It may be coincidence that nervelu and Guru vilu sound alike. Read my post on Big Terror Birds in Patagonia .

Ricardo Latcham

Regarding the Chilean Mapuche, Ricardo Latcham wrote the following: [5]

Nguruvilu –fox snake- is another hybrid, half quadruped, half reptile[…] generally appears as a fox with a snake tail which ends in a claw or nail , long and curved that it uses to catch or hold its prey. Sometimes it figures with the body of a great snake and the head of a fox […]

Latcham believed that it was not a real creature but a symbol of totemic alliances between different Mapuche clans (i.e. the fox and snake clans merged into the fox-snake alliance),

Chiloé

More recently, and for the area of Chiloé Island, Renato Cárdenas Alvarez in his book on the Island’s mythology, wrote about this creature, which he calls Ñirivilo , as follows [2]:

piguchén [*] monster, half fox and half serpent that usually lives in marshy waters, has vast strength and is very harmful. On the south of the Island it is a dog with a fox tail.
Comment: the Mapuche assure that it is a slim and small dog with a fox tail and cat’s head. Sometimes it is mistaken for the cuchivilu and the Cuero. [2]

He adds different variations of the name: guirivilo, guruvilu, nirivilo, ñifivilu, ñivivilu

[*] In this text, picuchén is used as deformed, ill shaped, supernatural.

Discussion

1. Could it be an otter?
In the late 1800s at the natives at Lake Nahuel Huapi, Argentina, told Salesian priest Lino Carbajal about the Guarifiú, he wrote about them in 1899, as follows:

Very large and terrible aquatic animals at Nahüel-Huapí […] of a colossal strength and size with fish fins, dog head and a strong and very long tail. With which it captured the Indians that swam, dragging them to the bottom where it drowned them and hid them between the roots of the plants. [11]


Detail of Carbajal’s description of the Guarifiú. From [11]

This was the animal that the Mapuche feared most and was the most difficult to hunt. Carbjal believed, that it was an otter, but the natives told him that otter were well known and common while Guarifiú was “rare and terrible”.

He managed to have one hunted, and he described the specimen as larger than the Chilean otter but otherwise normal. He concluded that the Indians always exaggerated.

Lehmann-Nitsche, after sifting through the evidence also concluded that the fox – snake is the Lutra felina, known as Chungungo or Chilean sea cat. A sea otter. [7]

Perhaps, not knowing about the Huillín neither of them ascribe the myth to it and chose the Chungungo instead.[7]

Though Carbajal comments have led scientists to believe that the fox-snake is an otter, I am not convinced because, it may be possible that the natives did not send him a Guarifiú, but an otter (easier and safer to hunt); furthermore the Mapuche knew all about otters, which they called Huillín so if they defined an animal with a distinct name (gurufilu, it must have been some other kind of creature.

Going back to Lehmann-Nitsche at Aluminé he believed that the fox-snake myth combined features of both huillín and jaguar [7] but Latcham disagreed; for him the otter did not have any part in the fox-snake myth for it had been incorporated into the Mapuches’ “ñul-ñul” and “Llun-Llun” myths.[12]

2. The real nguruvilu.

In any case, there is a real animal in Chile that goes by the name nguruvilu. and according to Latcham it belongs to the family of the tiny “monito del monte”;[12] how could have a minute and shy marsupial lend its name to the fearsome killer water fox is an unsolved mystery.

3. water tiger and snake fox. Similar creatures.

The “fox-snake” resembles the “water tiger” (see my post on this being) in many ways; both are aquatic carnivores that drag down and kill large animals and men. Perhaps their different names reflect local variations of the same species.

We should not be surprised to find two other animals that are virtually identical to the fox-snake living along Patagonia’s northern border, Maripill and the Colorado River animal.

Bibliography.

[1] Vicuña Cifuentes, J., (1915). Mitos y Supersticiones Recogidos de la tradición oral chilena con referencias comparativas a los de otros paises latinos Impr. Universitaria. pp. 65-66.
[2] Cárdenas Alvarez, R., (1998). El Libro de la Mitologí. P. Arenas: Ed. Atelí. pp. 95
[3] Guevara, T., (1908). Psicolojía del pueblo Araucano. Impr. Cervantes. pp. 322
[4] Vicuña Cifuentes, J., (1910). Mitos y Supersticiones Recogidos de la Tradición oral Impr. Universitaria. pp. 23-24.
[5] Latcham, R., (1924). Op. Cit. pp. 573-575.
[6] Guevara, T., Op.Cit. pp. 412.
[7] Lehmann-Nitsche, R., (1902). La pretendida existencia actual del Grypotherium. Supersticiones Araucanas referentes a la Lutra y al Tigre. Revista Museo la Plata. V. X. pp 271+. Online:



[8] Siemiradski, Josef. Beiträge zur Ethnographie der südamerikanischen Indianer “Mittheilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien”, XXVIII Bd., 1898, pp. 127-170, esp. p. 166.
[9] Molina, J. Op. Cit. pp. 233.
[10] De la Cruz, L. Op. Cit. pp. 110.
[11] Delvalle Carbajal, L., (1899). La Patagonia: studi generali. S. Benigno Canavese. Serie 1ª.-4, pp. 214+. Online:



[12] Latcham, R. Op. Cit. pp. 609.
[13] Koessler-Ilg, B., (2000). Op. Cit. pp. 73.
[14] Barberá,F. Op. Cit. pp.59.




Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia


2010 International Year of Biodiversity
 
Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall ©
 

1 comment:

  1. I just found this today after waking up from an incredibly vivid dream:

    There was a creature beached on the shore, so nobody could play at the beach today. The creature looked like a thin crocodile with no legs, with spines on its back. The head looked like a cute fox with large pointy ears. They called it a "Patagonia" in my dream.

    Long story short, it made it back into the water and everything was good.

    But as soon as I woke up, I grabbed my phone and googled "fox head snake patagonia" and came across your site. Prior to this I had never heard or thought of such a creature! How eery!

    ReplyDelete

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