The image I chose to accompany this post shows opposing dragons on a vibrant Chinese-style silkscreen. Today’s tale actually depicts an epic battle between two great serpents, BUT: #1, I couldn’t bear to look at snakes on my website :). And #2, in this Chilote legend of the flood, both snakes and dragons symbolize our eternal Enemy.
My soon-to-be-published book, Destiny at Dolphin Bay, features a background of Chilote mythology. One traditional story which doesn’t appear in the book still underlies much of the worldview of the Chiloé Islands of Chile. In different clothes, the “legend” of a universal flood exists in almost every culture of the world, from the Chinese to the Babylonians to the Incas. Here is no exception.
The Chiloé version turns the legend of the flood into a surprisingly plausible theory of the geographical origins of the archipelago, an explanation of their amphibious (land and sea) island culture, AND a fierce struggle between good and evil, which, after all, is what the best stories are made of.
Land and Sea
In the beginning…the myth assumes creation. At present, the island province of Chiloé consists of a large island (about 1/3 more square mileage than Prince Edward Island, Canada) and a scattered swarm of medium-sized and tiny islands. But thousands of years ago, the territory of the archipelago formed part of a single land mass connected to the American continent.
The traditional origin of the island group springs from a mythological struggle between two mighty serpents, Tentén-vilu and Coicoi-vilu (or Cai-cai, in some accounts). Tentén-vilu (from “ten” – earth and “vilu” – snake, in the indigenous tongue of the Huilliches) was the spirit or goddess of the earth. Coicoi-vilu (“co” – water) was, of course, the spirit of the water, specifically the seas.
The earth goddess, Tentén, represents the positive forces of abundance, fertility, and all that grows and flourishes on land, especially human beings. The water/sea goddess, Coicoi, on the other hand, represents the negative forces of the universe and every evil thing that lives in the ocean depths. Together, these mythical reptiles “personify” the conflict between earth and sea, beneficent and maleficent.
The good spirit watches over and protects her dominions from the ever-threatening invasions of the sea. The enemy of human and terrestrial life ever desires “to steal and kill and destroy” (Jn. 10:10, NASB).
“The devil takes his victories…wherever men of God lose heart, and leave the field to him.” –Orson Scott Card
War of the Worlds
One fateful day, without warning, Coicoi appears in the form of a monstruous snake and declares a cosmic war on the land. Obeying her command, the fountains of the deep ascend rapidly, inundating the lowlands and valleys, drowning most of the inhabitants. When the flood waters have nearly buried the hills and mountaintops of the entire region, Tentén arrives on the scene.
The counterattack comes not a moment too soon. As the protectress-serpent launches an assault against her enemy, she elevates the land and aids men, women, and beasts in reaching higher ground. To some men, Tentén gifts the power to fly or transforms them into birds or sealions. Animals are turned to stones.
The struggle between these two forces persists, long nip-and-tuck, terrible and tenacious. Neither rival demonstrates clear supremacy. Tentén manages to prevail, but only in the sense of halting the enemy’s advance. The lost “paradise” is never completely, categorically, regained.
Coicoi fails in her bid to overpower the heights. The rain stops, the waters subside. Yet few people are saved from the great catastrophe, and the battlefields never return to their original limits. The once-fruitful dales and vales remain submerged, transformed into gulfs and channels. The hills and mountain peaks become islands, large and small, their stony soil and rocky shores woven together by an intricate network of canals.
From this legend of the flood, the incomparable Archipelago of Chiloé emerged.
Geologically speaking, the current characteristics of southern Chile prove, in a way, the cataclysmic event that this myth relates. You only have to glance briefly at a map to appreciate how Chile’s central valley peters out at the extreme end of the Province of Llanquihue, just north of Chiloé on the mainland. Perhaps better said, the valley maintains its same trajectory—under the sea (“Llanquihue” – sunken place). The coastal mountain range shatters into a multitude of islands.
Just and Justifier
In the cosmogeny of indigenous Chiloé, the formation of the island group via a drawn-out war between land and sea creates the area’s basic lifestyle. And consequently, its peculiar mythology, traditional magic, and deep-rooted customs. The legend of the flood symbolizes their view of the world as an on-going battle between the principles of good and evil.
But is that reality? Of course, we certainly long for the triumph of justice and truth, what we call “good.” We wish for the defeat of the kingdom of evil, the cause of pain and grief in this unhappy world.
Yet what fascinates me to the point of goosebumps is that both (and neither) of the forces of the story represent God. You can immediately see the connection with Tentén, the provider and giver of life, the savior. But Coicoi also plays a part. Not that God does evil—He is good and means good in all situations.
But in the book of Genesis, God sends the flood. The waters rise at His command. He is both the awesome punisher and the ultimate protector. And there is no clashing dichotomy here. As always, God hates the sin and loves the sinner. He demands righteousness—and then provides it.
“Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed” –(Ps. 85:10, NKJV).
Romans 3:25-26 tells us: “God had passed over the sins…to demonstrate…His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” “…Justified by faith, we have peace with God…” (Rom. 5:1). This peace treaty with God—this shalom—means much more than the absence of conflict. It carries the connotation of healing, wholeness, prosperity, and well-being.
Even for our friends in rural Chiloé, the good life must start with being good with God. Merely opposing some obvious brand of wickedness and supporting positive values won’t elevate our souls or bring about victory.
Righteousness and Peace
On the other hand, neither of these spirit forces is like our God. He doesn’t settle for a draw, pull off halfway rescues, or compromise with evil. He is always the victor, never the vanquished.
The Great Snake’s legend of the flood misses the mark entirely. Fear of the diabolical enemy of humanity abounds and still inundates the Archipelago of Chiloé. An ambivalent sense of blind fate haunts these islands, a never-dissipating terror of the dark and unknown forces of nature.
At the end of the struggle of the serpents, Coicoi slunk away into the depths, leaving as her envoy an aquatic creature born during the flood. El Millalobo, as he/it was known, became the absolute “prince of the power” of the sea. Supposedly.
For those modern Chilotes who don’t necessarily believe in ancient gods they must please and appease, the need to outwit or outmaneuver them still guides daily life to some extent. Traditional tricks to hide flaws, save face, or just keep one’s neck above the religious waters lurk behind many social conventions and community celebrations.
It’s so tempting to call a truce, to give up. Or to give in to the wishful thinking that fulfilling the minimum requirements constitutes a winning strategy. We all deceive ourselves whenever we believe that maintaining the status quo, doing our “duty,” will gain us true success.
“When the powers of darkness are arrayed against you and aim to destroy your joy forever, nothing is more precious than to have the Word of God ready for the battle. The fight for joy is NOT for the unarmed.” –John Piper
Our glorious salvation…
…never means simple survival in a fallen, flooded world. All of us, including the islanders, “who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb. 2:15), can move from brokenness to blessedness. We sink, but we can learn to swim because “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful” (2 Cor. 10:5) and because “the Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (I Jn. 3:8, NASB). Victory!
Whether on land or sea, “the Lord will rescue me from every evil work, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:18). We are redeemed, restored, and renewed. In the true legend of the flood, the Sun of righteousness wins.
“Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” –(I Cor. 15:57)