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

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Cryptid Snakes, an Andean myth imported into Patagonia


My last few entries have focused on the “Culebrón” (big snake) and the “guruvilu” (fox snake) and the "Piwichén" (flying snake). Today I will post about the importance of snakes in the South American Andean cultures (pre-inca, Inca and pre-hispanic Chilean natives).

This “snake-cult” could explain the “Culebrón” , the Piwichén , the “guruvilu” and perhaps the Water Tiger.

Snakes and their relationship with the Inca God-kings

Felipe Huamán Poma de Ayala ca. 1585 compiled the "Legend of Manco Capac", the first Inca king (Inca besides being the name of these people, was also the name of the Monarch, thus Manco Capac was the Inca’s Inca).

Inca kings, like the absolutist monarchs of Modern Age Europe, were born kings by divine intervention, better still, they were gods themselves.

This legend tells how the first Inca (king) was an "amaro serpent" where Amaro is the Quechua language word for dragon or, serpent.[1]

There is another story in which this king, who was known as Manco Capac Amaro slayed a horrible beast and then added the word Amaro (or Amaru) to his name to commemorate the event:

he killed in a mountain a serpent so fierce and terrible (…) so big as the biggest animal on Earth, it had wings like those of a bat, the arms short and very thick, with great claws (...) it gave tempestive hisses (…) its body was covered with hard scales. [2]

In Quechua, a boa or an anaconda are known as Amarun, a similar sounding name to Amaro or Amaru the monster snake.

Notice that this snake has legs, claws, bat wings and hisses exactly like the Piwichén. Coincidence? or cultural flow (i.e. myth adoption) between two different people, the Patagonian Mapuche and the Peruvian Inca.

The king later placed the snake in his royal arms and shield.

After the Spanish conquest, the "Inca Garcilaso de la Vega", who had royal Inca blood [*] included the Amaru in his own coat of arms. It was published in his Comentarios Reales (1609). He designed it himself and included the arms of his Spanish family (Pérez de Vargas, Figueroa, Sotomayor and Mendoza da la Vega) on the left, and on the right, the Inca symbols: sun, moon, and on the lower part, two interwined Amaros

[*] He was the illegitimate son of Spanish conquistador Sebastián Garcilaso de la Vega y Vargas and an Inca princess Palla Chimpu Ocllo.

arms Garcilaso de la Vega
Coat of Arms of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. The Amaru snakes are on the lower right side.

The inca and pre-incaic cultures

Snakes were important in Peru long before the Inca became the predominant regional power.

I have found an image on the internet which is said to show a Chavin culture snake temple dated ca. 1000 BC. it depicts four snakes carved in stone:

Chavin snakes
Chavin snake temple ca. 1000 BC. From [3].

I also found a piece of pottery from the Mochica culture dated between 0 and 700 AD. It shows a “dragon” with a snake tail holding a human head. It is mounted on a base decorated with snakes. Notice that the snakes have ears a combination of mammal and reptile features in one creature. This is reminiscent of the Mapuche's Hairy snake

Ceramic Dragon (Mochica culture Peru) ca. 0 - 700 AD.
Amaru snakes are on the lower right side
. From [6].

Another Mochica fresco (below) shows a jaguar (?) headed snake.

Mochica fresco "jaguar headed snake".

Moche or Mochica ceramics often had a two-headed snake.[1] The later Chimu people had a similar motif on their pottery and adobe friezes at the “Dragon Huaca (Castle)”: a double-headed “rainbow” snake (curved like an arch).[7]

Rainbow double headed snake motif. Dragon Huaca.From [8] .

The anaconda and the boa were demanded as tribute by the Inca kings from their Amazonian subjects. They were kept at the imperial capital of Cuzco where they were fed prisioners (those who survived in the cage with them for three days earned their freedom).[9]

The rainbow serpent was also employed in colonial period (after the Spanish conquest) representations of the ancient Inca.[10]

The snake had “aquatic” connotations. Being two-headed it took water from one place and passing it through its body it placed it somewhere else. [10]

Snakes therefore were associated with springs, rivers and lakes. Lake Titicaca (shared by Peru and Bolivia) was said to have been guarded by a big snake.
More recently there is a moder story (Jauja and Huamanga, Peru) about a snake with two llama heads, it lived in a lake.[10]

The Water Tiger connection

The interesting thing is that jaguars or pumas, mythical magical felines for the Andean cultures which are grouped under the term Leones (lions), were closely associated with the Amaru and “contemporary Quechua speakers often refer to a composite being León-Amaru”.[10]

This could account for the Mapuche myths regarding the "water tiger" which was aquatic (a snake -Amaru- feature) and jaguar (tiger) and therefore magic or supernatural. It was a creature that was not found in Chile, which means that the myth was imported there (though in Patagonia there may have been jaguars, so I am not sure about it being a foreign myth within that area)

The Inca Empire and Chile.

The Inca Tupac Yupanqui in the 1440s invaded Chile from its territories in what is now Argentina, through Copiapo. They advanced southwards and over a period of about six years occupied the Central regions.

They face the constant opposition of the local natives and finally established their southern border along the Bio-Bio river, Patagonia's northern border.
However, increased hostilities forced them around 1520 to retreat and move the border northwards to the Maule River. [4]

During the period that they dominated Chile, they built roads connecting it to the empire, through Atacama to Cuzco and across the Andes into Argentina's western region, and from there through Bolivia into Peru.

They relocated Inca settlers from Peru and thus their culture, traditions and lore was brought into Chile and from there, it permeated into the local natives.

Northern and Central Chile (from Atacama to Santiago) was the area where the inca influnce was felt most.[5]

The inca called the non-conquered native Chileans "purum aucca" which in Quechua meant "non subdued enemies". The Spaniards, after the conquest, adopted the name without knowing its meaning, and called all natives south of Santiago "promaucaes". These were the non-subdued Mapuche people.

On the Argentine side of the Andes, just across from Coquimbo and northern central Chile, were several Andean farming cultures, such as the Diaguita. They too were conquered by the Inca: and, unsurprisingly, they also had "two-headed snakes" in their culture.

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 in the Aguada Culture's (Diaguita people) pottery from Argentina.

Getting back to Chile, between 1535 and 1537 Diego de Almagro explored the central parts of Chile from Copiapo to the Itata River but after a battle there with the Mapuche, he retreated to Peru. It would not be until 1541 that the Spaniards under Valdivia would enter Chile again.

This time they would conquer most of it. But the area south of the Bio Bio River would be contested during centuries in a long war that began in 1546 and finally ended with the defeat of the Mapuche people in 1881.


Doesn't it make sense that in the area where the Inca had a strong foot-hold, their myths were stronger? Such as in Coquimbo, Ovalle, La Serena, Santiago and other northern and central Chilean districts. Wouldn't their "snake" Amaru myths have been absorbed by the locals? If so, Culebrón and the other snake related myths (i.e. the "flying snake" or Piwichen) can be traced back to Peru (Inca, Mochica, Chavin cultures).

They would also tend to be weaker or diluted to the south of the Bio-Bio border, where the Inca had less time to interact with the Mapuche before withdrawing to the safer central Chilean valleys. Here they would have originated the filu myths among the Mapuche.

This would mean that flying snakes and Culebrones are a second hand memory of the Amazonian Anacondas and Boas, taken to Chile by the Inca conquerors.

So we can't expect to find evidence of Patagonian cryptids in these mythical beings.


[1] Guaman Poma. (1615). Nueva corónica y buen gobierno. pp. 82
[2] Anello Oliva, (1895). [1598] Historia del Reino y Provincias del Peru. pp. 42,43.
[3] Hugh Fox. Gods of the Cataclysm
[4] Diego Barros Arana. (1999) Historia general de Chile. vol 1. Santiago: Editorial Universitaria. pp. 56+.
[5] Ibid. pp. 63.
[6] ArteHistoria
[7] Li Ning Anticona, J., (2000). El gollete estribo de la cerámica precolombina peruana: interpretación estética UNMSM. pp. 33 and 81.
[8] Avent Peru
[9] Betanzos, Juan de, (ca. 1551). Suma y narración de los Incas.
[10] Paul Richard Steele. (2004). Handbook of Inca mythology. ABC-CLIO. pp. 95-97.

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia

2010 International Year of Biodiversity

Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall ©


  1. Hola Austin, seguramente habras oido entonces la leyenda pehuenche de las serpientes gigantes Tren Tren y Kai Kai.
    Mucha cosa interesante en tu blog!

  2. Hola Austin, una aclaracion, Purumaucas significan lobos monteses, Jeronimo de Vivar los describe de esta manera, los incas denominaron asi a esta gente por su peculiar manera de vivir

    sobre los dragones, en la selva peruana existen leyendas sobre las YACUMAMA, o madre de las aguas, que es una serpiente voladora gigantesca, con rasgos de otrs animales

    interesante blog


  3. I was at Lake Titicaca a few years ago and saw what appeared to be a very large serpent in the lake. I was looking out of a bus window when I saw it and it was pretty far away, maybe a quarter mile. I was about two hundred feet above the lake, and what I saw must have be somewhere between 30 and forty feet long. It, if it was actually a serpent, was swimming and formed an S-shaped curve. I have wondered what it was ever since.

    1. Thanks for writing, that is a very interesting sighting indeed.
      Let's attempt a rational explanation: rushes in a current, trout (Titicaca has them), a wave from a distant ship....
      or maybe some unknown lake creature

    2. Hello. My wife and I were staying in the lodge atop Sun Island on Lake Titicaca in May 2008 while on a tour of Peru and Bolivia after visiting The Galapagos... We have done wildlife watching all over the world, but on Sun Island we saw something we could not explain, and at the time contacted wild life experts but never received any reply... It was a real mystery. From the top of sun island, in the bay where we docked.... even at that distance we could see what was a large 'wake' in the water in a straight line. It wasn't any sort of craft and this has puzzled us all these years as we could not find any creature that it could have been, but because of the distance, it must have been the size of a fishing boat.. We had heard rumours of lake monsters, but have never been able to find out more.. Any ideas...

    3. Thanks for your comment. Titicaca has large frogs, they wouldn't make that kind of wake, trout, (maybe on a calm day) and the local natives (Uros) use bullrush or reed canoes, mabye one of these small watercraft caused the wake you describe?

  4. My fiance's mother tells of a large snake with ear-like appendages that was killed by the fire when her father was clearing some land in the jungle-covered hills near La Merced, Junin, Perú. It was inside a hollow log, I think she said that it was around 3m long. She is a very good observer of details, so I don't think this is just a tall tale. Another relative also confirmed that there are snakes with ears in that area.
    Some of the stories I have heard in the peruvian jungle of flying pishtakus who steal children at night(Pishtakus are traditionally people who kill others for their grease or organs.) actually sound remarkably like a nocturnal flying reptile... make what you wish of it, but there are some indications that flying pterosaurs may be still around, here is a book that was published recently, I have not read it, but there are other reports of them online (mostly in creationist websites).

  5. Actually I had not thought about extant pterosaurs when writing about flying snakes!
    Thanks for writing.


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