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South American spirits

Many describe the inhabitants of the South American spirit world as reflections of the Indians' minds. The spirits are generally human in shape. Their essential nature is portrayed by some specific detail in appearance such as a painted face, a physical deformity, or a mania. An example is the toad spirit.

Certain spirits are repugnant and frightening in appearance: they are hairy with prominent, arched eyebrows and are either incapable of articulated movement or else joined together like Siamese twins. Many are skeletons or skulls. Spirits frequently appear as a friend or parent. Some peculiarity, however, always gives them away, no toes for example. Whistling or creaking usually occurs when the spirits approach. Those ignoring these peculiarities leave themselves open to accidents and misfortune forming bases for numerous stories and legends.

Other spirits are benevolent, being kind and helpful. To humans kind to them they render good fortune in hunting and fishing. Others marry ordinary mortals but make touchy and nervous partners. These spirits flee at the slightest in appropriate etiquette or violation of the least taboo; one wonders who observed and reported such spirit behavior, the beliers or nonbelievers in spirits. They seemed to be observations in myths of voyages of men into lands of spirits.

The spirits that could be termed demons were differentiated from the spirits identified as being supernatural and had great cults. Each animal species was under the protection of a demon that the Indians gave such names as "Father of peccaries," "Father of Caymans," or "Father of monkeys." The demon of each group was a giant specimen of the specie that he rules and when wishing to metamorphize into human form.

The "father" or "mother" of each species does not exact harm on a hunter who kills their protected animal for food but the inflict harm on the hunter or fisherman who destroys for pleasure instead of person need. Such belief occurred among the Peruvian Indians when thinking they saw within a group of stars the image of a celestial animal guarding or protecting his earthly counterparts. Such a constellation as Lyra might be one; the liama followed by the spouse and the little one. Shepherds prayed to them that their flocks would prosper. Similarly, a certain number of stars in the constellation Scorpio formed the outline of a feline in the sky which not only figured in mythology, but also played a part in the cult. A.G.H.


Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965. pp. 481-482

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