Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Telling It Like It Was

Photo by D.Hatcher
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with myths, especially ones involving animals. Many cultures, both ancient and present-day, use animals in their story-telling to either get a message across or help explain the way their world works. Kids, especially, seem drawn to these tales. 

As a young girl, I would spend hours in the library poring over picture books, and later, archaeology tomes that delved into mythology from around the world. So when I sat down to write Vestige, it came as no surprise I wanted to weave in some Incan legends, including ones that contained animals. I could bore you stupid with the folklore I’ve studied, but I promise I won’t and will limit this post to two—one myth from Central America and the other from the Andes. Well, maybe I’ll squeeze in a quick one to make it three—let’s briefly go to Brazil as well.

Central America:
In Mesoamerican legends, the resplendent quetzal is a bird associated with the snake god of creation and wind, Qutzalcoatl (try saying that ten times in a row). The Mayans and Aztecs believed the bird represented goodness and light and the rulers of these civilizations wore head dresses with the feathers from the quetzal. By donning this bird’s feathers, they felt a connection with the god Qutzalcoatl. The bird was so revered, it was forbidden to kill it, so the lackeys would capture and pluck its feathers then set it free. 

The quetzal was thought to be unable to survive in captivity, so it came to represent liberty for those in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. Until twenty years ago no one had been able to keep the species alive or breed it in captivity. In the past, whenever a quetzal was captured and put in a cage, it would somehow kill itself through starvation or ramming against the enclosure. But a zoo in Mexico has been able to breed the species on a continual basis since 1992.

In Guatemala, the bird has been associated with the warrior prince Tecún Umán of the Quiché Maya. This bird was the prince’s nahaul (spirit guide). Legend has it that one day, the Spanish Conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado, rode in on horseback, and, Tecún Umán, who was on foot. When Alvarado delivered a spear to Tecún Umán’s chest, a quetzal landed on the spot from where the warrior prince bled and dipped its chest feathers into his blood. The Mayans believe this is how the quetzal received its distinctive red chest feathers.

Another legend tied to the Spaniards is that prior to its arrival in Central America, the quetzal had a beautiful singing voice. But at the time of the Spanish conquest, it fell silent. Many Central Americans believe that one day the quetzal will find its voice, but only when their land is truly free. 

Photo by Rick Swarts
The Andes:
The Aymara- and Quechua-speaking people of Bolivia and Peru believe that there were once two, superimposed worlds. The lower world had countless herds of healthy, long-haired alpacas that belonged to the mountain god Apu and were tended by his daughter. The upper world contained alpacas of inferior quality.

Apu’s daughter had problems protecting his precious alpacas from predators, so Apu arranged for her to marry a young herdsman from the upper world. For a while, their union was successful, but the herdsman grew homesick and so the daughter and her husband decided to take their healthy flock to the upper world. Apu agreed but only under the condition that the daughter and her husband take special care of his precious herds, especially his prized possession—a particular baby alpaca. They started their journey, travelling alongside springs and lakes. The baby always wanted to be carried but the husband became lazy, and one day he dropped it to the ground and left it to fend for itself. Apu’s daughter became frightened and ran to the nearest spring, diving in and swimming back to the lower world. Many alpacas tried to follow her, but the herdsman prevented them from doing so. Ever since, the alpacas of the upper world have stayed near lakes and springs, waiting for their mistress who has yet to return.

The Cobra Encantada is a beautiful woman who turns into a vicious snake to guard an immense treasure. Whoever can break the spell will have the gold and marry the maiden. I’m not so sure Disney will like this one for the next movie--it might freak out the little kids.

For thousands of years, humans and animals have been connected. There’s no wonder we want to include animals in our folklore also. Take a look at the advertisements for kid’s products or the popularity of shows such as the Care Bears (showing my age, now) or Big Bird on Sesame Street. Animals are used in many forms to gain attention, especially from the little people, and deliver a message. The wheel, penicillin, and technology may have changed the way we do some things, but others have remained the same—we still use animals in our story-telling.


  1. This great, Alli. Whenever I write my characters in a different country, I dig pretty deep to create a layered world for my reader to explore. I like the ideas of including myths in that research. It may never make it into the book, but having it in my head helps me to bring those places alive for readers who may otherwise be unfamiliar with the setting.

  2. What an interesting blog - thank you for posting this. Your story will be so rich and have a deep sense of place. I think this is writing about what you know (or keenly want to know).

  3. Rebecca, thank you so much! Yes, everything helps when writing about characters in different countries, including a knowledge of their beliefs, myths, etc.

    Barb, thank yo so much, too! Definitely writing about what you know (or have researched) comes across as authentic and makes for better reading for everyone, huh?

  4. Oh, I so hope Disney won't get their hands of the legend. They've messed up so many good ones. This may be a bit off topic, but no kid should watch The Treasure Planet before they read the Treasure Island. IMHO.