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

Friday, October 23, 2009

Fuegian Beasts - Part 1


Part 1. The Selk’nam people’s monsters

All three nations of Fuegian natives feared monstrous clawed beings; in today’s post we will look into the beasts that terrified the Selk’nam people.

The Selk’nam were frightened of an evil female[*] spirit, the dreadful Halpen or Xalpen, virtually identical to the Tehuelche’s Ajchum, the “leader of devils”.[1][2]

[*] Fuegian males had a fixation with women’s liberty and they went to extremes to subjugate them. Their myths indicate that in the past men were under female domination until they revolted and adopted initiation rites in which they donned costumes and masks and impersonated evil spirits to instill fear and keep their women subdued. This may explain why females are associated with evil monsters in their culture.

She had a peculiar shout, a very shrilly “wa” and was escorted by her partner, Shoort. Both he and Halpen lived underground.[3]

Despite their fear, the natives enacted Halpen and Shoort during their “Hain”, a rite of passage into manhood, where she was the centerpiece.

Two principal Shoorts of the 1923 Hain. Left, north sky. Right, south sky. From [3] pp. 102.

Shoort’s role was to terrify the young men, who were told that he haunted the woods, was invulnerable to their arrows and that “if they met such a creature they were to take refuge in a tree, for the spirit was not accustomed to climbing trees”.[4]

Lucas Bridges, the first white man to be born in Tierra del Fuego, took part in a Hain and gives a good idea of what Halpen looked like; he tells of a young boy named Tinis who was dressed to represent her; he was covered with guanaco skins until:

overwhelmed, could barely walk, having lost all human appearance […] These furs, with the hair inwards and whitened with lime on the outside, hung down to his feet, and on top of all this they fastened a wrapping that resembled a short and stocky fish, with something like a human face painted on the front […] The slow pace of Halpen, his occasional stops […] made it a threatening appearance, in accordance to its sinister fame.[4]

He added that Halpen could also be a swift creature and had a long sharp nail on its middle finger and used it to attack humans.

Salesian Father Gusinde described her as living underground and being not only dangerous but also irritable and whimsical. At a Hain ceremony he saw her represented with several hides placed on the floor of the hut that created a bulky cylinder roughly 6 m (20 ft.) long.

These eye-witness accounts indicate that Halpen was a large bulky furry creature, which was agile and also dangerous; with her claws she “open[ed] the bodies of [men] […] because she could hurt, destroy and even eat” them.[5]

Besides Halpen, the Selk’nam also had two other gigantic non-human monsters, Chémene and Siaskel.

Chémene or CheEnèm was another female monster that guarded a watering hole at Oixe by Cape Peñas. She was a terrifying “ogress”; a gigantic woman with large claws, who killed and ate the brave hunters who dared to venture close to her lair.[6][7] What became of her is not known. There are no accounts about her being killed. Perhaps she still hides by the spring.

Siaskel or Chaskel was a male monster, a giant that lived at the dawn of time, during the mythical era of the “Hoowin”, the legendary ancestors of the Selk’nam. During the time of the Hoowin lived a Selk’nam hero named Kwanyip; he had taught men how to build fires, hunt, make bows and arrows, canoes, and also, as a real hero, he slayed monsters.[8]

Siaskel, was a gigantic creature that ate humans -preferring children and women. His blood was poisonous and he, like Shoort and Halpen lived underground (some kind of burrowing monster?). Chilean folklorist Carlos Keller (1898-1974), described Siaskel as having dark disheveled hair and a cape that deflected the arrows shot at it (which, as we will see in future posts, was a feature that many Patagonian monsters shared).[9]

These defenses made him a formidable creature. But Kwanyip was forced to attack the monster to rescue his two young nephews who had been taken by Siaskel and enslaved by him. After a formidable battle, he slayed the beast.

In our next post we will look at the Yagan people’s “Cushpij” and the Alakaluf’s “Ayayema” and “Kawtcho” all of which are very similar to the Selk’nam’s monsters. We will also look for some reasonable explanation for these mythical creatures.


[1] Baleta, M., (2002). Cuentan Los Chonkes - Leyendas de la Patagonia Tehuelche. B. Aires: Zagier & Urruty. pp. 27.
[2] Prieto, A., (1992). Arte Primitivo. Fuentes Decorativas, Punta Arenas. Año 3. N° 32. 05-1992.
[3] Chapman, A. (1982). Drama and power in a hunting society: The Selk'nam of Tierra del Fuego. Cambridge: Cambridge: University Press. pp. 100 and 102
[4] Bridges, L., (2008). El último confín de la tierra. B. Aires: Editorial Sudamericana. pp. 407-9.
[5] Penazzo, N. and Tercero G., (1992). Los dos primeros Kloket'n cuando el Loro anuncia la estación. Impactos, Punta Arenas. Año 3, N° 32. 05-1992
[6] Penazzo, N. and Tercero G., (1991). Impactos, Punta Arenas, Año 2, N° 21. 06-1991.
[7] Molina, M., (1976). Patagónica: Prehistoria, tradiciones y mitologías. Roma: Ed. LAS. pp. 167.
[8] Carbonell, B. (2003). Cosmología y chamanismo en Patagonia. Gazeta de Antropología. Nº 19, 19-09.
[9] Keller, C., (1947). Dios en Tierra del Fuego; Mitos y cuentos de los Sélcnam. Santiago: Zig-Zag. pp. 67.

Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©

Patagonian Monsters

1 comment:

  1. Would it be wrong to infer Ajchum is just a Tehuelche Xalpen?


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