Reading through Dr. Bernardo Quintana’s mythology treatise, Chiloé Mitológico, I’m struck once again by the background motivation of fear in so many of the rites and rituals, tall tales and strictly-timed tasks. Fear of the spirits and the sickness they cause. Terror of darkness and death and the dead, as manifested in the story of the phantom ship, Caleuche. Fear of meager harvests and scarce fishing. And clearly, the fear of change and lack and of the unknown…
In my last post, I promised to continue the story of our ghost ship, Caleuche, one of the most intriguing and well-known of the many legends of Chile’s Chiloé Islands. You may remember that the ship’s name literally means “Shapeshifter.” It’s not only capable of self-transformation from magnificent galleon to dolphin or dead tree trunk, it also can resurrect shipwreck victims and alter any islander’s fortunes at whim.
Despite the positive aspect of some of these shape-shifts, few Chilotes desire to run into the Caleuche on a night of drifting fog. Would you? Me neither. Because it means you’d either be tottering on the brink of death or toying with mysterious powers beyond logical comprehension.
“The only fear that builds character is the fear of God.” –Anthony Liccione
Some fears, no doubt, are right and reasonable, quite justifiable. Just not the fear of change.
Covenant of the Covetous
So what price does the witch-crew of the Caleuche put on their pact to upgrade an islander’s prosperity? (Strange how most of us never fear a change in fortunes for the better, only for the worse!) Part of the deal with the devil includes lavish on-demand entertainment of the ship’s crew, in return for an abundance of contraband merchandise.
When the Caleuche appears in front of a “partner” family’s home, it’s not just to drop off supplies. Because every once in a while, the crew takes shore leave to have a bit of fun. Their hosts seem delighted to show them more than even customary Chilote hospitality. When the fiesta of abundant feasting and drinking concludes at dawn, the happy Caleuchans board their invisible ship again and lift anchors.
All the neighbors suspect that “Pepe Pérez” owes his economic success to a secret alliance with the Caleuche’s enchanted crew. Some people may even contend they know it for a fact because they’ve heard the all-night parties. Protected and provided for by powerful friends, naturally Pepe’s obligated to pay up from time to time.
On the other hand, “Juan Jaque’s” misery and woe may stem from some offense against El Millalobo, the Lord of the Seas. Instead of an exchange of favors between business associates, his visit from the Caleuche may signify something far more ominous. Such as punishment imposed for some act the crew considers a crime.
They say a guy named José Huala, from the hamlet of Coñab (where we used to drive by weekly), once used explosives to fish. For this scandalous misdeed, he was compelled to the end of his days to hold big bashes for the Caleuche’s crew. The enormous expenses incurred occasioned great poverty to the unfortunate Huala.
Or… Curse of the Condemned
However, his sentence was mild compared to the case of Pancho Calhuante of the village of Matao. One night, while fishing near a rocky beach, he glimpsed a sea lioness nursing her young. He crept up on them and brutally whacked both mother and baby with an oar, killing the little one, which he dragged home to exploit for the oil of its blubber.
A short distance out to sea from Calhuante’s front door, the wounded mother mourned the loss of her baby. On the fourth day after the attack, three sailors claiming to belong to the crew of the Caleuche suddenly arrived and announced that the fate of his eldest son would mirror that of the baby sea lion. Sure enough, the child died a few days later.
Some folks insist you shouldn’t fish at all, or even dig shellfish, on those spooky foggy nights. Or you run the risk that the Caleuche may snatch you for her crew. All debts to the sea must be paid. A bitter lesson for those who dread poverty too much to show pity, who fear losing out more than wrongdoing.
So these are the voyages of the shapeshifter ship Caleuche, on her continuing mission to explore the seas, supervise all its lifeforms, safeguard the next generation… ? Captain Millalobo takes his job even more seriously than Jean-Luc Picard.
Most folklorists see different angles to the Caleuche mythology. The care of marine life, of course, reflects the concern of all primitive peoples for plant and animal fertility and the bounty of annual harvests. As well as the modern preoccupation with global ecology and stewardship of the earth. The collection of cadavers at sea, along with the reward or punishment according to works, recalls the future resurrection of the “just” and the “damned” in Christian theology.
Consternation in the Cove
These days, the legend of the Caleuche pops up most often in island humor. During our decade in Chiloé, we once experienced several months of rationed electricity when three of the four underwater electric cables to the island were damaged. Inexplicable? A ship had anchored too close to the cables, the power company conjectured.
Claro que sí-po. “Yeah, right.” Our Chilote friends smirked. “It must have been the Caleuche.”
In my forthcoming novel, Destiny at Dolphin Bay, two harmless Chilote fishermen encounter a counterfeit apparition of the Caleuche and flee in panic. Tragedy ensues. Jaime and Lucho, the unlucky victims of a cruel and elaborate stunt, never view the crew of the Caleuche as benevolent rescuers (like La Pincoya and her siblings). Instead, their meeting with the ghost ship fills them with terror of the retribution of evil witches, meted out for some arbitrary offense.
In reality, they’ve become the brunt of a villain’s fiendish greed (or jealousy or revenge, as in many stories). The old fear of diabolical spirits binds them under the control of defeated enemies and toothless snakes. Blinds them to the new truth of freedom from sin and death and hell. The new freedom from fear.
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” –Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
For some of these dear Chilote folks, the good news of rescue by Jesus provokes more fear of change than desire for a transformed life. I, too, see a lot of change for the sake of change these days. And remind myself that sometimes my fear of change merely equals a fear of the unknown.
But proceeding with thoughtful caution… Dear God, don’t let my mind harden to cement, my heart turn into stone! I may (will!) grow older, but don’t let me get set in my ways.
“Though the Mills of God…
…grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small,” wrote the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. God is in the process of transforming hearts in this world, no matter how small and slow the changes seem.
He is the only One who can make things better. Let’s not get twisted up with the fear of change. Can we choose the pain that renovation takes, the work and effort and sacrifice it costs to become changed people?
“When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.” –Chinese proverb
For other Chilotes, the fresh air of the gospel wafts into their lives like a spring breeze in a brand-new world. They recognize that none of us live free of sorrow and hardship. This present world is no utopia of endless bliss.
Yet they’ve learned that the cheap spoils of the devil don’t come at bargain prices, either. Clinging to their deeply entrenched traditions and human concepts of the good life never created a just society. The culture offers solidarity, conformity, even stability. But it never gives the gift of peace. And never erases their lurking fears.
Some, like the character Nicolás, come to see that righteousness and peace meet in Jesus alone. He steps up to challenge “the futile way of life inherited from (our) forefathers” (I Peter 1:18. NASB) and confront the false Righteous Province (the witch-crew sailing the shapeshifting Caleuche).
Their external works not only lack the power to produce the internal transformation of a lost, frightened, and darkened soul, but also exacerbate the fear of change: One’s fortunes might turn, all right. Things can always get worse, is the philosophy.
Replacing the Rags
Yet the apostle Paul calls this vain thinking the “empty deception” of self-imposed religion (Col. 2:8). And Nicolás, too, calls it as he sees it: “It hardly matters whether you change religion or government or even your own habits.” Neither plastic surgery nor political upheaval will ever change the heart. Or the world.
And even less, catering parties for the Evil One in the hope of finding acceptance, approval, financial assets.
“A man whose life has been transformed by Christ cannot help but have his worldview show through.” –C. S. Lewis
Without entering into details, let me conclude today with the outlines of another story, told by a Chilean woman. A long-term visitor to a certain island, she discovered that the ten-year-old grandchild of a neighboring couple was experiencing regular sexual abuse. The boy’s young single mom had long since departed the island to escape her father (her abuser, as well).
But when this concerned woman approached the local “authorities”—a teacher and a police officer—she was stopped cold. They begged her not to make a stink about the situation. Please not to upset the apple cart, not to disturb the unity of the island. Those well-meaning people sincerely believed it better to “leave it alone,” or the family would lose their sole means of support and a “respectable” elder would lose face.
Better in the short term, maybe. But talk about the fear of change.
The attitude expressed seems to imply that we’re locked into the way we are. That people, families, nations, cannot change.
Perhaps not. But I believe in a Rescuer who extends His hand while He rocks the boat and says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5, NASB).
Be a True Transformer
When, in the cultural narrative, an assault on a sea lion carries weightier consequences than continual abuse of a child, something’s out of balance in our world. Is it kindness to rescue the dead but not the living? To fuss about funeral feasts instead of relief for the wretched and broken?
Or to watch vicious cycles of dysfunction drag on to the third and fourth generation…or every succeeding generation? How easily we human beings are tempted to tolerate the intolerable, slide into the mud of mediocrity, and embrace evil—but not the costly treasure of transformation.
“Transformation in the world happens when people are healed and start investing in other people.” –Michael W. Smith
You know I’m for enjoying stories. I’m a fiction writer and a fan of fairy tales and fantasy. Some stories may feature “good” wizards, but most of Chiloé’s real machis scramble for influence and affluence, oppose God, and even impersonate Him in their locale.
In real life, you’ll find me siding squarely with the True Story of the One who came to break all evil spells and shatter our petty status quo. He means to shift the shape of our jaded thinking to joy. IF we will trade our frantic pursuit of health, wealth, and happiness for the Unchanging Savior who can change everything.
Let’s lose our fear of change. Roll out of the ruts of routine.
And perhaps the fear of not changing, too. But that’s a debate for another day.
“In the days (of God’s King) may the righteous flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more! May he have dominion from sea to sea… May people blossom… (and) the whole earth be filled with his glory!” (Ps. 72:7-8, 16, 19, ESV)