Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Culebron the Full dossier


The Culebrón

Though I have posted about this being before, today I am going to avoid the piecemeal approach and put the whole story down:

The name

Culebrón is not a native word, it is Spanish. It is the aumentative of Culebra, the Spanish word that means “Non venomous snake” (“víbora” is the Spanish word for poisonous snake).

It is a myth found in Chile (we will see that it is predominant in the central area of that country, beyond Patagonia). Further south, there are “snake” myths that through the influence of the Mapuche culture, crossed the Andes into Argentina, where they are found mainly in the province of Neuquén.

The Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche, non venomous snakes are known as filu. And, the Mapuche – Spanish dictionary has an entry for “iwai filu” which is “a big serpent.

I will call these Mapuche snake myths, the filu myths.

Culebrón eating a girl. From [5].

The snake myth among the Tehuelche.

Besides the Mapuche, there were other native groups in Patagonia:

  - the Fuegian natives and the “boat people” of Southern Chile have no myths regarding snakes (there are no snakes in Tierra del Fuego or the harsh insular habitat of these natives).
  - In continental Patagonia, the Tehuelche Group have left us no myths regarding snakes.

The filu snake myths are exclusively Mapuche.

Yet, in their territory, in the Province of Santa Cruz, close to Puerto Deseado, a strange stone carved in the shape of a snake was found in 1937 by Indalecio Alvarez at a salt flat close to the estancia (ranch) “25 de Marzo”.

It was a piece of pink sandstone 32 cm (12.6 in.) long, and roughly 40 mm (1.6 in.) wide and 35 mm (1.4 in.) thick. It resembles a snake. This is on the Rio Deseado River, south of Antonio de Biedma. He believed it was a representation of a Yarará ñata (Bothrops ammodytoides) which is found in Patagonia.[13]

Check the article Online, it has some photographs of the stone snake.

Chile and its benign snakes

The first naturalist to study Chile, Juan Ignacio Molina (1810) noted that it lacked poisonous snakes and that the few that could be found were harmless. He added that “the boys, grab them by their tail and spin them around their heads to “make them drunk” […] The vipers are totally absent.” [1]

So, Chile, home of the Mapuche lacks poisonous snakes; why do they have myths involving dangerous snakes?
We can offer three explanations:

1. There were large snakes in Chile and they became extinct before science became aware of them; but Mapuche folklore retained their memory.
2. The Mapuche imported the myth from other parts of South America where snakes (big and poisonous ones) are common.
3. They mistook another animal for a snake.

Mapuche myths involving snakes (the Filu myths).

1. Cai-Cai and Ten-Ten

Chilean foklorist Latcham transcribed a version of the Mapuche myth about a Noah-like flood or deluge at the dawn of time. [2]

He believed that it may have been their way of explaining a tsunami along the coast (quite normal in earthquake prone Chile) or the sudden catastrophic breakage of an ice dam or a weak rubble closure of some Andean lake. These catastrophic outbursts have happened in the past (for instance in the Colorado River in Argentina in 1914 when a natural dam burst emptying 1.55 km3 (roughly one cubic mile) of water into the valley. In either case the natives would have sought for an explanation. The fighting snakes gave tham a plausible cause for the catastrophe.

The myth involves two gigantic “culebras, one of them good, Ten-Ten lord of the land and protector of mankind; the other evil, Cay-Cay who was lord of the waters.

Cay-Cay unleashed the flood to drown his rival and his human subjects. Ten-Ten raised the mountains higher and higher beyond the reach of the flood to protect them; he also turned some of them into fish, sea mammals and stones so that they would not drown.

The helpless humans looked on while both snakes fought a terrible battle. But finally, exhausted and with no more water to flood the world with, Cay-Cay gave up and retreated to the deep waters where he still lives and keeps on fighting with Ten. The constant earthquakes that shake Chile are due to this unending battle: Cay-Cay gets covered with rocks and to shake them off trembles causing the Earth to quake.

Humans, to remember their saviour have named several mountains named after the heroic Ten-Ten (some are spelled differently: theng-theng).[2]

Father Félix José de Augusta in his Mapuche-Spanish dictionary printed in 1916 described the evil culebrón as follows:

Kai-kai or Kai-kaifilu […] the snake kaikai, a mythological animal, half serpent, half horse, that they believe is under the sea and whose voice sounds like a horse neighing.[3]

It’s “mane is so grown that it drags it along the ground

Yet another version cited by Latcham is that of Robles Rodríguez: “an enormous lizard came out of the center of the earth and shouted Cai-cai” [2].

Tomás Guevara describes it according to his Mapuche informant Manuel Lonquitué “Caicai is an animal that has the shape of a new born horse it lives, like Llul-llul [*] in the water”[4]

[*] Llul-llul is another myth, about a long-tailed cat like creature that lives in the sea.

Based on the above, it seems that there are two kinds of Cai-Cai. The original myth making being and the “later versions”. The former is a giant, that creates earthquakes and floods the world, a supernatural force of gigantic strength and size. The latter seems to be a normal sized animal.

We should leave the titanic snake and focus on the smaller one. The animal that is an aquatic foal shaped being (Guevara) or lizard-like (Rodríguez) or half serpent, half horse that neights (Augusta) and has a mane.

There is also a humanoid snake, which lacks a Mapuche name, and is found in the Argentine province of Neuquén, among the Pehuenche people, who live by the eastern Andean foothills.

2. Snake man and snake woman.

These are not animal-snakes but human-snakes. This is a different king of snake creature which is not aquatic: in both myths, there is no clear indication that they are “lake creatures”.

Bertha Ilg-Koessler, [6] transcribed the story told to her by Chief Kurruhuinka, at San Martín de los Andes in the mid XXth century.

This tale was about a Snake man: “The Monster of the golden boot or the ‘well combed’”. This creature was:

A black man like a piece of charred wood […] the black man sitting there was half a man because the other half was the body of a very big serpent coiled up below the other [half]. [6]

This monster excreted golden nuggets which later turned into excrement. But, once he disappeared, lovely yellow floweres, boot-shaped (hence the name of the tale i.e. “golden boot”) known as kuram filu or snake eggs (Calecedonia Speculata) began to grow there.

The creature was found at Lake Nonthué (I posted on him before) but she does not call him a “Culebrón.

Koessler-Ilg also wrote down another native tale, about a snake woman: a native known as “The Serpent Killer”relentlessly destroyed all snakes that came his way “even though [his tribe] considered those reptiles as sacred”. One day a lovely maiden appeared out of the waters of Lake Meliquina [*], she was blond and human but later she altered her shape and turned into a “gigantic snake” that coiled around the man, killing him. This spot is known until this day as Arroyo Culebra (Snake Stream) and lovely kuram filu flowers grow there (notice the similarity between both stories in the flower finale).

[*] Lake Meliquina. (40°21’S, 71°18’W). Surface area 9 km2 3.5 sq. mi. Neuquén, Argentina.

Culebra Stream is a unique geographical phenomenon. Its headwaters is the Arroyo Partido (Split Stream), which splits into two separate streams, the Culebra, which flowing into lake Meliquina ends up in the Atlantic Ocean and Pil Pil Stream, which flows north, into Lake Lacar and from there into the Pacific Ocean. This is the real Continental Divide.

These humanoid snakes share human and reptilian features, like mermaids or centaurs they embody an animal and a person.

These humanoid snakes share human and reptilian features, like mermaids or centaurs they combine an animal and a person in one being.

3. Animal varieties of mysterious snakes.


Is it a Mapuche myth or a “Spanish-Native” myth?

I will quote exclusively from Vicuña Cifuentes’ excellent book on Chilean oral myths [10]

Vicuña Cifuentes on the “Culebrón". From [10].

I will copy the relevant parts of this text below:

The Culebrón according to what I was told at el Palqui, village in the interior of Ovalle, is a big and snub tailed snake, that is, whith a truncated tail. On its back it has a mane that measures up to two spans in length and that extended on both sides it uses as wings to fly. The Culebrón’s size is variable, some specimens have been seen with a length of eight spans (1,60 m) [5 ft. 2 in.]. It lives close to the pens where goats and sheep are enclosed because […] it suckles their milk […] sometimes it sucks the blood of newborn kids but only if it can’t whet its apetite with milk.

[...] At Elqui [...] it is not described as snub tailed, instead its truncated tail is replaced by another head. Nor is it given a mane, but wings with which it flies, though only at night [during the day] it moves very slowly […] it measuers up to 2 meters long [6 ft. 6 in.] which is thick as a man’s leg and its color is spotted.

[...] South of Choapa the myth […] is found only sporadically […] at Angostura de Paine […] it had the following description: - The Culebrón is a fat snake, with a head and snout at each end. Sometimes it has small heads on its sides and bristles along its back. It sucks the blood of tiny lambs. Further south this description is applied to the Piuchén [*][10]

He goes on to mention the great antiquity of the myth, but that we will look into later.

[*] Piuchen. Is another creature which in Southern Chile is described in a similar manner. Perhaps because Febrés says it is like a flying snake mistaking it for the northern Culebrón.

I have posted on it Here: The flying snake of the Mapuche "piwichen"

Note however that Elqui is about 90 km (56 mi.) east of the city of La Serena in central Chile, (29º 54’ S, 71º 20’ W) and Ovalle is about the same distance south of La Serena. Angostura de Paine is very close to Santiago. All these locations are very far from Patagonia. The myth is not a Patagonian myth.

Not Patagonian and, well beyond the Mapuche homeland. The name itself is not Mapuche but Spanish (unlike all other Mapuche myths) this is a clear indication of a “mestizo” tradition, a mixture of Spanish and native. Furthermore, the creature’s habitat in the relatively arid central valleys of Chile is very far away from the Patagonian lakes and forests. This is a terrestrial creature and it seems, more at home in the air, flying, than in a cold mountain lake.

A Spanish myth. Imported during the Conquista

I have found several references to the Culebrón myth in Spain. We must not forget that the Spanish Conquistadors brought to the New World their religion, language, traditions and, of course, their myths. These were absorbed by the growing Creole population (mixture of natives and Spainards).

Among these myths was the “Culebrón”. Below are some examples:

   -   “a Culebrón” that devastated the countryside devouring domestic animals and helpless people who tended their cattle in the fields close to the cave which was the beast’s lair. ”. Leon. By the villages of La Vid and Villasimpliz. XIIth Century. (Online)

   -   The Cuélebre was a “winged serpent […] that lives in caves and springs […] its whistling can be heard at a great distance [*] […] it attacks and devours people and animals”. It can be found in place names in Asturias “Cave of the Cuélebre” at Noriega, Mestas de Con. The “Fountain of the Cuélebre” at Cuerres, Intriago, etc. (Online)

[*] This creature whistles like the Piuchén.

   -   The “Lagarto de Jaén. Described as a “great serpent” or “serpe”. (Online)

   -   Also see: Aurelio de Llano Roza de Ampudia´s bok “Del folklore asturiano: mitos, supersticiones, costumbres (1922) and “Leyendas españolas de todos los tiempos: una memoria soñada” (vol 9, 2000) by José María Merino. Both of which mention the creature.

Any similarity between the Chilean and the Spanish Culebrón is not a coincidence.

4. Cagua-Cagua the Culebrón.

In Neuquén, at Pichi-ruca, a Pehuenche couple was in the forest, when they:

Heard some strong snorting; it seemed that someone was being hanged […] they saw a gigantic culebrón that was dangling between two trees, its tail and head dragging on the ground […] it was a very powerful Cagua-Cagua [7]

This creature also known as Putrahilu was terrible, it could eat an animal or humans in one gulp, whole. It had the ability of creating a whirlwind to drag the victim closer. Its tail was hairy. [7]

This story is interesting because it makes the reptile a hairy one (like Guevara’s snake-horse with a long mane). An incredible oddity. We have another report on this creature by Argentine military Commander Barbará who in the late 1800s mentioned, on the western Pampas a lake named “Calchí-filu” or “hairy snake”. This was the land of the Puelche people, who had acquired the language of the Mapuche and also used it to name places.

But what kind of creature can be assimilated to a gigantic hairy snake? Snakes are reptiles and as such, lack hairs. The mere existence of hairs means mammal; Culebrón , if hairy is some kind of mammal. Notice how in Cifuentes’ version, it also likes milk.

This is a Filu myth, it involves Patagonia, a Mapuche group (Pehuenches) and is located in the Andean forests. Notice however that the creature is not aquatic but arboreal.

Other myths.

Before looking into the “mammal-snake”, lets take a look at the other myths involving snakes:

Large sized serpent with an enormous head that sometimes looks like that of a horse

This creature lives in the pools of rivers and can sometimes cause floods. It kills by constriction like a boa.[9]

This monster which shares Cai-Cai’s ability to flood and is also a horse-like snake, is not Chilean, it is not even Mapuche, it is a Guaraní myth, the Mboi-Guasu.

There are other Guaraní legends involving gigantic snakes: Mboi-Tunpa, Boywazú-Tunpa, Mboi-Moné, Mboi-Tatá and the dog-headed Mboi-Yaguá. Their close relatives, the Chané or Chiriguano people, also had their monster snakes: Mboimbéu, Mboirusú and Mboi wuju. The Mocoví had Nanayk Kaló, a giant snake.

All these native Americans (Guaraní, Chané and Mocoví) lived in the tropical and subtropical area of Northern Argentina. A land with plenty of snakes of the poisonous and constricting kind. I have posted before on the possible ties between Guaraní and Mapuche people. A theory which the Mapuche people don’t favor because they fear that if they are “late arrivals” in Chile, they may loose their status as “original people”. They root for the theory that states that they originated on what is now Chilean soil, from Paleo-Indian stock.

Nevertheless, the Mapuche myths involving tropical beasts such as giant otters and jaguars as well as shared myths (water-blacks, water-tigers, lewd dwarves and elves with their feet turned around, among others) clearly point at some kind of ancient relationship between both groups.

This may support the notion of an “imported” myth, either by the Mapuche lifting camp and moving from the Amazon rainforests to the Chilean valleys and bringing their folk tales with them. Or by cultural flow, by which the Mapuche people incorporated foreign myths and made them their own.

Vicuña Cifuentes mentioned that he had seen an ancient native vase from a burial at Elqui, which depicts a Culebrón, he added that it was very similar to the “plumed snake” of the Andean natives and thought that it had been introduced into Chile trough contact with the Diaguita natives of northwestern Argentina.[10]

Regarding the Andean Natives, I have posted on the possible Inca origin of the Mapuche "snake" myths. Which explains how these "snakes" which do not exist in Chile, could have entered its mythology; furthermore, the Diaguita may have also absorbed their "snake" beliefs from the Incas.

I suggest that you read this very interesting article (in Spanish) and take a look at the images depicting the snake like inscriptions that can be found on the Aguada Culture pottery from Argentina,[14] just across the Andes from the Culebrón homeland in La Serena, Chile.

Reptile mammal or hairy snake in Patagonia.

Bio Bio “reptile”

In 1914, there was a sighting at this Chilean River by the town of Santa Bárbara (37°39’ S, 72°01’ W). The creature was described as a “reptile or similar animal”. Its lair was on an inaccessible cliff by the river. This “kind of lizard, enormously thick, three or more meters long, of a light gray color” left a track “close to a meter wide and similar to that of a snake dragging itself”.[11]

Snake at Lake Ranco
In March 2003, people living in different towns around the lake reported to the police that there was a “strange creature moving along the river, hiding in the rushes and scaring the animals that came to the shore to drink water”. They described it as a “giant snake about eight meters long [26 ft.], […] an aquatic monster”.[12]

Both creatures seem to be reptilian, snake-like and at home in the water.

In today’s post on Lake Ranco I mention that at Caman inlet, at a deep pool, a fisherman caught a “very strange fish that had a crest like that of a cock with a mane down half its back” frightened, he threw it back into the lake, and this place is known as the “Culebrón Pool”.

This could either be a perch, a native fish (Percichthys trucha) that has a spiny dorsal fin and another softer one. It could be mistaken for a “mane” or a cock-like crest. Perhaps the angler had never seen a perch. Below is an image of a perch (European, which is similar to its Patagonian relative):

Perch, notice size and shape of dorsal fins..

Comments and Discussion.

Culebron myth map
Culebrón and Filu myths. Map showing places mentioned in the text. © Copyright 2010 by Austin Whittall.

The above map shows the area where the Culebrón myth is found in Chile (red), to the east, in northern Argentina is the area where the Diaguita people lived until their culture was destroyed during the Spanish Conquest (pale blue). In blue is the region where the Mapuche snake myths Filu, Cai-Cai, cagua-cagua, myths are found. The pink area shows the region occupied by the Mapuche or "Araucanized" natives (Tehuelche, Pehuenche, Ranquel, etc.) between the mid 1600s and 1880. Here you would expect to find references to the Filu snake myths. And you do, the blue dot in the region shows the location of “Calchí-filu”. In Yellow is the homeland of the different Guaraní groups, and a possible original homeland for the Mapuche people (tropical area with plenty of snakes). In bright green is territory of the Tehulche groups, which did not have snake myths. However (blue dot) a strange snake shaped stone was found there, close to Puerto Deseado.

I will add to this post over the next few days, but it seems to me that the Culebrón myth can be summarized as follows:

- Chile lacks big and venomous snakes.
- Imported into Chile from Western Argentina and Northern Andean Cultures (such as the Inca) or introduced from Spain during the Conquest.
- The big snake that flies and has two heads is an “exotic” (i.e. non-Chilean) component of the myth. Found elsewhere.
- It is widespread in central Chile, beyond Patagonia and the home of the Mapuche people. Not a local myth.
- Not found in the other Patagonian native cultures (Fuegians and Tehuelche).
- The Mapuche people have their own “filu” (snake) myths. These may be foreign if the Mapuche are linked to other native cultures from the tropical areas of America, specifically the Amazon. In that case snake myths originated outside of Chile.
- Hairy snakes may indicate a mammal.
- Foal like appearance and neighing point at a mammal.
- Long slender body (otter? Extant South American platypus? unkown water creature? Nguruvilú the Mapuche's aquatic "fox - snake").

I tend to believe that it is a monster and not a snake; a mammal and not a reptile.


[1] Molina, J. Op. Cit. pp. 226
[2] Latcham Organizacion social 1924 pp. 403+
[3] De Augusta, F., J., (1916). Diccionario Araucano-Español, Español-Araucano. pp. 73. Online:

[4] Guevara, T. Op. Cit. pp. 324.
[5] Casas Cordero, El culebrón que se comió a la niña en las minas del Volcán.
[6] Koessler-Ilg, B., (2000). Cuentan los Araucanos: Mitos, leyendas y tradiciones. B. Aires: Del Nuevo Extremo. pp. 297 and 73.
[7] Relatos del Hombre y la Naturaleza Lo que contó la Abuela Tranamaiñ Fundación Pehuén. Endesa.
[8] Barbará F. Op. Cit. pp. 124.
[9] Colombres, A., Op. Cit. pp. 167.
[10] Vicuña Cifuentes, J., (1915). Estudios de Folklore chileno. Mitos y supersticiones recogidos de la tradicion oral chilena, con referencias comparativas a los de otros paises latinos. Santiago: Imp. Universitaria. pp. 326-327.
[11] Gröthe, S., (2008). Reptil en el Rio Bio Bio – 1914.
[12] Picasso, F. and Núñez O., L., (2004). Gigantescos Ofidios Sudamericanos.
[13] Deodat, Leoncio, S. M., (1942) Un bastón mágico herpetiforme descubierto en Patagonia austral. Relaciones de la Sociedad Argentina de Antropología, III, pp. 99-118.
[14] Debora M. Kligmann and Elena Diaz Pais. Una primera aproximación a los motivos serpentiformes de la iconografía Aguada del NOA Intersecciones en antropología versión On-line ISSN 1850-373X Intersecciones antropol. n.8 Olavarría ene./dic. 2007

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia

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

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