identity crisis, the little mermaid, legends of Chiloé, red-haired green mermaid on shore with trident looking out to sea, La Pincoya, La Sirena, El Millalobo, Huenchula, sea, land, identity, Melissa Travis, Destiny at Dolphin Bay, Hope Chest, Angie De la Cruz, daughters, TCKs, Chile, Chiloé Islands, Chilote mythology

Identity Crisis

In my daughter’s recent graduation photos, I see her pose with friends and classmates from around the world—a vast and fascinating variety of colors and cultures, ethnicities and languages. As a holder of triple citizenship, she barely notices but instead integrates the differences into her multiverse. Amazingly, she’s never seemed to suffer from an identity crisis …even since dressing up as a mermaid in kindergarten.

“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” –Chuck Palahniuk

Who am I after a lifetime in Chile? Rather, perhaps, who have I become? And who are my third-culture kids? TCKs have grown up a blend of the home country, the host country, and another culture entirely their own. Yet the dual or multiple loyalties don’t usually result in “split personalities,” either in the sociopolitical arena or in the spiritual realm. My “mermaid” daughter knows who she is. If an identity crisis exists, it’s more often because she resists pigeonholing.

“By the grace of God, I am what I am,” declared Paul, the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles (I Cor. 15:10, NASB). Our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of man, would agree.

“There was no identity crisis in the life of Jesus Christ. He knew who He was… where He had come from, and why He was here. And He knew where He was going. And when you are that liberated, then you can serve.” –Howard G. Hendricks

Last post I shared the story of the conflict between the two great Serpents. According to Chilean mythographer and physician, Dr. Bernardo Quintana Mansilla, this is the fundamental legend in Chilote mythology. It concluded with the birth of El Millalobo, ruler of the oceans. Today I continue the tale of his three royal mer-children.

Daughter of Earth and Sea

Once upon a time, the golden-furred Millalobo (from “milla” – gold in Huilliche, and “lobo” – Spanish for wolf; in this case, a “lobo marino” is a sea lion) took a wife. Huenchula, the daughter of a Chilote woodsman and a well-known witch, lived near the banks of the river flowing from Lake Cucao to the Pacific Ocean, on the remote western shore of the Big Island of Chiloé.

The industrious girl undertook all the household chores, since her mother dedicated most of her time to the practice of her “profession,” which included gathering herbal remedies and tending to her “clients.” But one day, Huenchula vanished on her daily walk to the nearby lake for water. Bewitched by El Millalobo, she eloped to sea with him, leaving no trace except an empty bucket, much to the anguish of her parents.

A year later, Huenchula reappeared at her parents’ home, bearing gifts from her husband—a powerful king, she explained—as well as a newborn daughter cradled in a limpet shell. She would not permit her elders to look upon their grandchild (don’t ask me why). However, when she stepped outside for a moment, they couldn’t resist—and sneaked a peak!

Instantly, the baby girl was transformed into a puddle of crystalline water. Upon her return, the mother snatched up the limpet, ran away again, and gently emptied the watery remains of her child into the ocean depths. Overcome with grief, Huenchula recounted the tragedy to her husband.

No sooner had she finished the tale when a dainty boat resembling a limpet shell floated toward her. Out stepped her recently liquidated daughter, now become a lovely young woman of incomparable charm and sweetness. Her parents named her Pincoya (or Piñuda, from “pinda” – hummingbird, plus “colún – reddish color).

Children of Dual Heritage

El Millalobo, as viceroy of the sea serpent Coicoi-vilu, generously offers his bounty of fish and shellfish to the people of the Chiloé Islands. He sows on their coasts and in their seas through his favorite daughter, the golden-haired Pincoya. On her good graces depends the abundance—or scarcity—of seafood in the channel waters.

In Chilote mythology, La Pincoya is a goddess of extraordinary beauty who personifies the fertility of the seas and seashores. Periodically, she emerges from the depths of the sea, semi-dressed in a skirt of ropy algae, to dance on the gravel beaches or upon the waves. Unlike the fabled mermaids, both her arms and legs resemble those of an ordinary human being. And she is said to be so attractive that even the fishes’ mouths gape.

When La Pincoya performs her dance facing the high seas, this means that fish and shellfish will abound in the area. On the other hand, if she dances with her face turned toward shore, this indicates that fish will become scarce.

When the scarcity persists over a long period, La Pincoya has become displeased because of careless or uncontrolled overfishing. She can be persuaded to return her favor through the intervention of a machi (witch) in a magic ceremony. Only the machi has the power to convince her to grant abundance again.

When the islanders shipwreck, La Pincoya hastens to their rescue, accompanied by her siblings…

El Pincoy and La Sirena

A bit of an identity crisis exists in the story here, as all three share a somewhat similar appearance and perform different facets of the same task.

“Living exclusively in the land of the head or the heart will always be a limiting, limited experience. The most successful among us have dual citizenship.” –Bill Crawford

Because of his fascination with music, El Pincoy’s alternate name is Pincullhue (meaning flute). The stories usually describe him as a creature with the body of a huge silvery seal and the face of a handsome man with a mane of golden hair.

La Sirena (the Spanish word for mermaid) looks and dresses practically identical to her sister. She specializes in caring for her father’s fish as a sort of marine shepherdess. Fortunate fishermen catch an occasional glimpse of her among the rocks, combing her long red-gold locks. And once, so the tale goes, she got tangled in a net and sobbed in distress until the fisherman took pity and released her.

Mixed Myths

I’ve garnered much of my education in Chilote mythology from Dr. Quintana’s book, Chiloé Mitológico. (An abridged children’s version, published by the Universidad Austral de Chile, is available for downloading. It’s in Spanish, of course, but the pictures are interesting.)

The late author/investigator (1916-2012) was born and raised in Achao, a town on the island of Quinchao. Later, his pioneering use of x-ray technology earned him the reputation of a warlock in the Chiloé of the 1940’s! I wonder if, as a man of science, he experienced an identity crisis when visiting home? ?

“Identity was partly heritage, partly upbringing, but mostly the choices you make in life.” –Patricia Briggs

Dr. Quintana expresses in the preface of his book that in researching the legends of Chiloé, he never purposed “to revive superstitions nor to return to belief in witches, mysterious powers, or magic forces, but … to offer it to all those restless minds who may use it as a source of inspiration in their new creations.” He himself hand-carved a museum-quality collection of mythological scenes, (like the craftsman Leonel Nahuelanca in Legacy of the Linnebrink Light).

Many people believe that Chilote myths exist in various forms in other places and have been imported through the conquistadores, pirates, or travelers. While this suggestion has merit, in most cases the stories intermingled with indigenous legends to the point of blurring the boundary lines.

The myth of La Pincoya

…corresponds more or less to the Nereids, or sea-nymphs of European waters. And perhaps to other fertility goddesses of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythologies. A strange identity crisis pops up between La Pincoya and El Pincoy, as the tale sometimes connects them as siblings and at other times as spouses. In this case, it’s possible the legend of El Millalobo and La Huenchula is duplicated in the children. Alternatively, Pincoy/Pincoya may represent male and female manifestations of the same spirit of fertility.

The idea of legend duplication also evidences when we compare La Pincoya with La Sirena. Their main difference is that, in place of legs and feet, the mermaid younger sister possesses a fish’s tail and glittering silver scales on her lower body.

Dr. Quintana believes that the infrequent births of infants with sirenomelia (AKA mermaid syndrome) gave rise to the myth of mermaids (and mermen). Generally, these children survive only a few hours or days, but this rare congenital anomaly genuinely occurs. (1/100,000 births–I wonder if it’s more common in isolated areas where frequent consanguineous relationships exist?)

Mermaid Mosaic

Often considered wicked temptresses, the sirens of many mythologies utilize their beautiful singing voices to lure unsuspecting sailors to their deaths on rocks and reefs. In contrast, Hans Christian Andersen’s broken-hearted Little Mermaid leaps to her death after failing to win the prince’s love (and a human soul).

While Disney exchanged the older versions for lighter, happier fare, I think they still got it wrong. Though their mermaid’s father demanded she abandon her love for a human, instead she sacrificed her mermaid privileges to gain a human life with him. Land or sea, air or water…

Instead of either/or, why not both/and?

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about discovering who God created you to be.” –Unknown

As with my Third-Culture Kids, an identity crisis doesn’t have to erupt when you choose to be simply who you are. Or rather, who God has designed you to be. Though they sometimes deal with the confused loyalties of being “citizens of everywhere and nowhere,” they recognize their birthrights of global belonging, expanded worldview, and linguistic adeptness.

Who are any of us but the awesome combination of our genes, our habits, and our choices?

The masterpiece of personal identity as a child of the Now-but-Not-yet Kingdom begins with delighting in and using to the glory of God each piece of the puzzle that makes up the person you and I become. In His plan, we aren’t born when and where we are without a reason. We don’t go through unique experiences just because. Rather than give up these life components or throw them away, God means to integrate all into an “immense orchestra of earth, sea, and sky.”

A concert, not a crisis.

Integrated Identity

Who is Melissa Travis? In my book, Destiny at Dolphin Bay, she learns that God has molded her into far more than just herself or her family or school, or even the sum of her background parts.

Where is her friend Nicolás truly at home? In the cosmopolitan capital, like his father? Or on the rustic island, like his mother? His identity crisis leads him to both worlds, leaping effortlessly like his pod of pet dolphins between water and air.

And beyond, as citizens of heaven on earth. “When you are that liberated, you can serve,” Professor Hendricks reminds us.

Locals call Nicolás’s mom, Angélica, La Sirenita—the little mermaid girl. These days I’m writing the why, the memory behind the myth, in Hope Chest. Who is Angie De la Cruz and how does she morph into the White Lady of Chauquelín? Before her story ends, she must exercise every gift, employ every resource she possesses, to raise a generation that will change her island’s future forever.

“Christians have a dual citizenship—on earth and in heaven—and our citizenship in heaven ought to make us better people here on earth.” –Warren Wiersbe

So I’m taking Dr. Quintana at his word and using the mythology of Chiloé as a source of inspiration. For stories rather than visual art, in my case.

Stories of tragedies turned into tales of triumph. Disasters to diamond crystals. Teardrops to oceans of love-that-trusts and faith-that-works.

Stories of transformation from rough and broken glass to beautiful jewels …via many a stormy passage that culminates in a joyful dance upon the waves.


  1. As always, this blog post is a veritable literary masterpiece. I do not exaggerate. I enjoyed learning about the origin of La Pincoya. The mythology of Chiloé is more involved than one might think. More than I thought, anyway. Thank you for sharing this perspective and the application. I appreciate and agree with Warren Wiersbe’s quote, also. I’m learning more and more just how important our time on earth is, even if we are “ just a passin’ through.”

    1. Awww, thanks for your kind comments. Yes, the mythology is more complex than one might realize as an “outsider” looking in–this is the tip of the iceberg! But it reminds me of the importance of living out the True Myth (as Tolkien termed it). You are so right… our lives and opportunities are fleeting. We have to make the most of everything, large and small.

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