Today’s story opens with the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, depicted on a series of Danish shortbread cookie tins in my collection. Sure, you know these classics: The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling… I have three of these eight special editions, and one is called The Tinder Box.
One of Andersen’s lesser known tales, The Tinder Box tells the story of a poor soldier tricked by a witch into descending through the twisted roots of a hollow tree. There, along with untold riches, he finds a magic tinder box guarded by three formidable dogs. Those mean dogs—whose eyes grew successively larger than teacups, water wheels, and round towers—always raised goosebumps on my spine. But it turns out they were canine genies. Think Scandinavian Aladdin and the Lamp.
“Everything you look at can become a fairy tale, and you can get a story from everything you touch.” –Hans Christian Andersen
The “witch” on my tin looks like an ordinary elderly woman. Tufts of gray hair under a kerchief, dark cloak, beaked nose and bent back. Could be anybody’s grandmother, or any poor widow in the Chiloé Islands. Or almost any matron over 30 in Victorian-Era Chile. In Hispanic culture, many concepts of witchcraft are based on the Spaniard Goya’s ghoulish paintings. (Why do the old stories and art denigrate women, especially ageing women, like that? A topic for another day.)
Once Upon a Time…
I’ve always enjoyed folklore, starting with Cinderella as a child and moving onto Greek mythology in high school. To my surprise, I learn that Hans Christian Andersen’s tales were often criticized in their day for their informal style and “lack of morals.” Well, a thread of truth there. I always thought it unsporting of the soldier to lob off the witch’s head when she refused to divulge the tinder box’s secret. Then again, she probably coveted it for an evil use? The soldier didn’t handle it much better either, at first. But he eventually learned his lesson and won the princess whose snooty parents had locked her away from the lowly soldier.
The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales are admittedly–grim. Is it just me, or do you too glimpse a pattern of decidedly-less-than-upright main characters who often seize their dreams through violence and/or deceit?
Andersen’s fiction immortalized a body of Danish legends. In my understanding, almost all fairy tales have at least some root in fact, if only to account for the uncontrollable forces of nature or the otherwise inexplicable. Take the Greeks or the Vikings, for example. Or the Chiloé Islanders, whose creation myth is an epic battle between two serpent-spirits. Hmm, wonder where they got that from?
We wonder about the reality behind the myths. Whatever the background of truth, I believe these stories frequently underline a thirst for power and revenge and a longing for health-wealth-and-happiness. Along with the failure of “religion” to meet people’s very real and deep needs.
“God is not only the answer to a thousand needs, He is the answer to a thousand wants. He is the fulfillment of our chief desire in all of life. Whether or not we’ve ever recognized it, what we desire is unfailing love.” –Beth Moore
Did the Chilotes believe their own mythology?
Do they? I don’t know about the majority today. But fifty years ago, the time setting of Hope Chest, my current work in progress about Angie De la Cruz and her mother? Whatever beliefs people held then, most were based on ancient superstition and fear-fueled imagination. Maybe hallucinations from over-indulging in chicha or licor de oro.
Among other themes in Hope Chest, I explore the mist-shrouded path from bizarre reality to legend and myth. The relationship between Chiloé’s fantastical mythology, the very real phenomenon of evil in the world, and a Christian worldview.
Chilote folklore reads like a horror novel, a psychological thriller. To begin, we must trace back to the mid-1700’s, under Spanish colonial oppression. In the inhospitable climate of the Chiloé Archipelago–even more isolated, neglected, and fiercely independent than the rest of southern Chile–a shadowy group of indigenous people formed an underground society known as the Righteous Province or Los Mayores (the Majority, or the Elders). So “they” say.
Secrets of the “Unrighteous” Province
Their original “purpose statement,” apparently, was to oppose the Spanish elite and provide an alternative regime offering justice for the natives. A prototype of resistance organization. Even during Chile’s War for Independence, the Chilotes held out against the new government until 1826, eight years after most of the country.
On the bottom line, they meant to maintain their secret knowledge and culture and to dominate their island province. By whatever means necessary.
Their members? At a series of so-called witch trials in 1880, the primary accused, a 70-year-old farmer, Mateo Coñuecar, described the Righteous Province as a sect of brujos (warlocks). Their intricate hierarchy was headed by self-proclaimed kings and viceroys. Almost all were men. Women usually participated only by serving as voladoras (flying messengers/spies disguised as birds) or as healers, skilled in herbal medicine.
Most were native people, for whites of any ethnic descent were rarely trusted. With the elaborate series of brutal initiation rites to pass, not just anyone was admitted to the council of “Elders” anyway.
Their practices? The Righteous Province combined in a unique way the European Christian ideas about witchcraft, imported by the Spaniards, with the beliefs and traditions of the local inhabitants of Chiloé.
According to Coñuecar’s testimony, the groups met in caves (not hollow trees!) throughout the islands. Their main base was located in a vast cavern on the sheltered east coast outside the village of Quicaví. A pair of monsters, the Chivato and the Invunche, guarded its concealed entrance. These were once human babies, kidnapped and horribly, deliberately deformed in infancy.
From Deception to Devilry
Most of the Chilote population feared and respected the members of the Righteous Province because of what they considered supernatural powers. The warlocks could lance curses, poison animals or people, and inflict deep slashes, via the evil eye or even from a distance. (Remember those scary dogs’ eyes?) Terrifying enemies!
Later, however, though laced with the trappings of magic and mystery, the Righteous Province mostly designed and attempted to fleece and otherwise control their poorer neighbors. Threatened with dead sheep or crops destroyed by sorcery, the “clean” (non-witch) villagers paid an annual “tribute” that the council demanded.
Clearly, they had mutated into a power mafia of sorts, running a complex uncover protection racket in the islands and nurturing fear for the purpose of manipulation and material gain.
While fairy tales such as The Tinder Box are entertaining, a darker reality often skulks beneath the old-fashioned charm. For the men and women who flirted with demonic forces, the mythology represented a delusion that allowed them to literally get away with murder, extortion, theft—and worse.
Behind closed doors, in clandestine places like Quicaví, they abused and exploited children as they invented the Invunche (I imagine a cave troll, like the dogs in The Tinder Box). They turned their women into Voladoras and Fiuras, tough, ignorant creatures whose only role was back-breaking work. Teenage pregnancies (and often rape and incest) were blamed on a lecherous forest dwarf, the Trauco. And the Pincoya, a fertility mermaid-goddess, received praise for the ill-gotten profits of fishing violations.
Even the legendary ghost ship Caleuche, highlighted in my first book Destiny at Dolphin Bay, not only explained shipwrecks but also excused strange disappearances and lucrative contraband cargoes, the source of many warlocks’ wealth.
Happily Ever After…
It all begs the question: How did they ever get away with it?
On the one hand lies fear, of course. On the other, I believe pride in their culture comes into play. In the syncretistic mix of paganism and medieval Christianity that was—and often still is—Chiloé, even ordinary islanders enjoyed bragging rights to this secret order and the sense of belonging to an exclusive in-group.
The Righteous Province, while unrighteous as the devil himself, advocated many popular elements: Anti-outsider, anti-government, etc. Some of this volatile, festering bitterness has struck the tinder box and set ablaze the movement of indigenous violence raging in southern Chile today.
“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” –C.S. Lewis
Don’t we all have a transcendent desire to see ourselves as special? What are the superhero movies about, if not that?
Don’t we desire to discover joy, pleasure, satisfaction? To belong to a close-knit community and participate in a vision that’s bigger than ourselves?
But we can find it all in our Lord Jesus Christ. His kingdom, ruled by an all-powerful Prince, encompasses a community of the truly “counted-righteous,” where peace and joy last forevermore. Amen.
So were the Elders of the Righteous Province really witches? The whole idea seems like a creepy aberration from the backward past. What tinder box ignited, then, in Ancud, Chiloé, in 1880? A witch hunt during the Industrial Age?
I’ll share the rest of the tale next week.