About John Caviglia

I was born in Chile, my father a chileno, my mother an adventurous gringa from Muncie, Indiana. My family moved to the US when I was eight. I have been a professor of Spanish, and Comparative Literature. Over the years I have also taught pottery and martial arts, My passions include reading and writing, cooking and organic gardening, photography, and the making of cedar strip canoes, in which I explore wilderness lakes with my wonderful wife, Barbara.

Datura and Alternative Realities: In Searchof the Aboriginal Mapuche Machi (IV)

Commonly called Angel’s Trumpet, Datura stramonium sports a beautiful bloom.

IMG_6774 (1)



Here, a towering vine, with the characteristic clarion blossoms.



Said to have originated in the Americas, Datura has spread to all the world’s warm and moderate regions, where variations on the color and form of its trumpet have evolved.







Below, the seed pod, giving Datura two of its many names—pricklyburr and thorn apple.

Datura seed pod

Other common names include Jamestown weed (corrupted into jimson weed) and stinkweed.  Others are far darker: hell’s bells, devil’s bells and devil’s weed … one of these—in acute contradiction to the most common—is Devil’s Trumpet, for Datura is indeed a dark and complex thing, once its toxins are taken into the human body.  A last name–locoweed–reveals why Datura trumpet forth both Hell and Heaven….

Mad as a hatter, blind as a bat, red as a beet, dry as a bone….  The effects of Datura Stramonium intoxication—summed by this traditional ditty—are far from pleasant, and yet from time immemorial, worldwide this plant and its relatives have been used for sacred and ceremonial purposes.

Datura is a member of the potato family (the Solenaceae), which includes deadly nightshade, henbane, tobacco and mandrake, all of which are psychotropic. The active agent in Datura, atropine (a tropane alkaloid) is a poison that greatly punishes the body. As the ditty states, it causes delirium—a total inability to distinguish the vivid visions it induces from reality. Also, it dilates the pupils, which leads to photophobia.  (Here–in passing–a factoid: the “nickname” belladonna given to deadly nightshade derives from the habit of Italian belles of dosing themselves to dilate their pupils, flirting with death to increase their beauty.)  Datura also causes tachycardia—rapid beating of the heart—as well as elevated body temperatures, and an extreme dryness of the mouth. As if all this unpleasantness were not enough, Datura dosages can easily be deadly, depending on the part of the plant used (seeds, leaves, flowers) the stage of development, and the method of application or ingestion (Indeed, in some parts of Europe and India it has been cultivated as a poison). Nonetheless, used with caution, Datura has been prized by many societies for its remarkable ability to “liberate” the mind, severing its ties to reality–in other words, by providing total temporary madness.

In India, Datura is associated with the worship of Shiva—god of the dance of life—the plant said to have sprung from the hairs of his chest. And in the Americas, numerous peoples, including the Navajo, have made recreational and ritual psychotropic use of this plant. Those of European origin know Datura (or its cousins), through the well -known fact that witches fly by using ‘magic’ brooms…. Scholars have argued that such ‘flight’ actually consists of the characteristic soaring visions of Datura intoxication, caused by the application of an unguent to genitalia with a broomstick, as atropine can be absorbed through the skin (and most efficiently by the armpits and genitalia). Here’s a link to delicately worded article in The Atlantic, expanding on the ticklish theory: Why do witches ride brooms?



Technically, Datura is not a hallucinogenic, but a deliriant.   This means that, while under the influence of Datura, you are not just “seeing things,” but actually IN an alternative reality typically including spirit flight—which is to say the leaving of the body—and often transformation into animals. It is this which intrigued me for a variety of reasons when, early in my research into Mapuche culture, I discovered the use of Datura.

It is a documented fact that traditional Mapuche dose children with Datura in order to ‘see,’ in their delirium, what they will turn out to be as adults (for example, if the child picks up things not its own it will become a thief … and so on). But what drew me more to Datura and the Mapuche was its ritual use by machi. This intriguing fact which I encountered here and there in my early years of research was eventually attested to by Ana Mariella Bacigalupo’s magisterial book on Mapuche shamanism, Shamans of the Foye Tree: “Some machi ingest … the seeds of the miyaya, or chamico, plant (Datura stramonium), in order to produce hallucinations, divine the future, exorcise evil spirits, and treat pain, mental illness, asthma and rheumatism.”

In Arauco, I depict the physical effects of Datura and the characteristic progression of its induced visions (deliberately leaving the preparation of Datura concoctions vague … though the matrix of ripened urine I do include as one of those astonishing shocks encountered by ethnographic search). Certainly, not all present Mapuche machi indulge in Datura—indeed some look down on it as trafficking with poison, in this society where the boundary between shaman and sorcerer can be difficult to distinguish.  Though no one will ever know for certain if sixteenth century machi used Datura I assume it in Arauco … and I must confess that this decision derives partly from a festering generational ingestion of the books of Carlos Castaneda, in which Datura figures large. But ultimately, what Datura gave my novel was a structure for the visions of a machi who, accustomed in his own way to alternative realities, was forced to cope with one stranger and far worse than any vision possible to his people—the Spanish.

All cultures have their ‘edges’ (The Great Wall of China being an immense petrification of that metaphor). In Arauco that bound is depicted as a river, which I thought fitting for Mapuche culture–so focused in its daily life and in its myths on water–fitting also because the Bío Bío was for centuries the boundary and symbolic edge of the Araucanian war.

One cannot live in the middle of a river, as Ñamku states in Arauco.  Nor is a wall a place to live but a place to meet, a no man’s land where–the wall erected high enough–one can commune only while bearing the blank flag of truce. In such context (among other things), Datura stands for the radical blankness of that flag taken to another plane—a stripping away of body, self and culture, danger and travail taking one to where all rivers and all walls are overflown … a place where one, at last, might meet others similarly stripped of societal and mortal coil.

Calbuco Erupts in Southern Chile

Calbuco, a Chilean volcano which has been dormant for forty years, erupted yesterday, April 22nd, near Puerto Montt, in southern Chile.

Calbuco  3

Here is a map of southern Chile, showing the location of Puerto Montt:

Puerto Montt and Calbuco

And here is a map which shows the location of Calbuco relative to Puerto Montt, the southernmost city in Chile:


More images of the eruption:

Eruption of Chilean Calbuco volcano


Calbuco eruption 2 And here’s a link to the story on the BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-32425370


Right Angles only by Accident: An Essay on Inca Masonry

It took a recent trip to Peru–my first–to make me realize with curious shock that in the entirety of Arauco there is but one thing witnessed by Juan de Cardeña that today exists essentially unchanged … and that extraordinary thing is Inca masonry.  Scarcely troubled by earthquake, merely touched by the finger of time, such structures as the Spaniards did not disassemble or destroy still stand titanic, enigmatically offered to our admiration.  So, in my continuing effort to “illustrate” and “footnote”  Arauco, I here present (with explanation) some of the architecture and masonry my historical hero surely would have seen.

In the Inca heartland–no matter how humble–structures were invariably made of stone. And no mortar was ever used.  The one great variable was the quality of the masonry.  Some of the roughest (called “rubble masonry” by experts) can be found in the terraces that are a signature element of Inca agriculture.  Here is a perspective on Pisac, a site in the Sacred Valley, not far from Cusco:

Distance depicts the precision and beauty of these terraces, but gives absolutely no idea of their size.  Here a photo provides people for scale:

Pisac wallYou will note that the stones are in no way fashioned.  They are simply “stacked” (leaning slightly In) with such art that they have survived more than half a millenium.

Below are the terraces of Moray, another Inca site in the Sacred Valley:

Here a person (my wife) provides scale.  The masonry, as in the terraces at Pisac, is simply a precise stacking of stones.
Moray--Barb for scale

Remarkable as such Inca stone craft is, it attains a level of craftsmanship unmatched by any civilization in edifices erected for nobles and the sapa Inca himself.  In these, every stone is shaped to conform to those about it.  According to chroniclers, all of Cuzco–that city sacred to the Incas–was so constructed.

This is a typical section of a magnificent Cuzco wall which survived Spanish depredation.
Cuzco wall (1)

Here’s another part of that same wall, my wife providing scale.  The large stone she stands by is famous as having twelve “angles.”

Barb and wallEach huge ashlar is unique, shaped to fit those around it.  Amazingly, the Inca masons did not use metal tools to do this, but ground the stones in place, using yet harder stone and a slurry of sand and water.

The same sort of masonry construction was used in a much larger scale to build Sacsayhuaman, the temple/fortress which overlooks the city of Cuzco.  Since it was used as a kind of quarry by Spaniards from the time of the conquest (amazingly, I was told, until the 1970’s) a small fraction of the immense structure survives.  Not unsurprisingly, these are the very largest ashlars, which comprise the lowest part of the temple/fortress.  This Wikipedia photo depicts present Sacsayhuaman as a whole, Cuzco to the left, below:

A remarkable segment of a Sacsayhuaman wall:

And another segment with truly immense ashlars.  The largest stones used to construct Sacsayhuaman are thought to weigh between 128 and 200 tons.


Sacasayhuaman was (and is) extraordinary.  But the finest, most painstaking examples of Inca ashlar masonry were devoted to their sacred places, which were not always, not exactly, temples.  At Machu Picchu you can tell the sacred from the less so, simply by the masonry.  Consider the photo below….
Inca_temple (2)

At the bottom,the masons seem to have been given instructions as to quality which changed in the lower courses.  But above this secular confusion is the so called Temple of the Sun, distinguished both by that Inca rarity, a curved wall, and even more by the regular perfection of its masonry.

A view of that same “temple” from above (the Urubamba River below):
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As your present guide I might point out that the sun, shining through the window built by the sacred rock enclosed by this “temple,”aligns its light with the carving on the rock at the winter solstice.

From this perspective you can get a better feeling for how Inca masons built their walls.  You will also notice that, like all Inca walls, this one slopes in.  This means that not only is every ashlar uniquely shaped to its place, but that (seen from the side) they are nothing like rectangles, and irregular even as parallelograms.  In Inca architecture there is nothing even remotely modular, like a brick.

Perhaps the finest Inca masonry left standing in Peru is what remains of Coricancha, the temple complex devoted to the sun (and a variety of other deities) in Cuzco.  The photo below shows, on the right, what remains of one exterior wall:

Much of Coricancha was destroyed, replaced by an immense (and immensely ugly) cathedral. But enough of the remarkable original remains to give one an idea of its masonry. The interior of one of the temples in the Coricancha complex now looks like this:


In its time and glory, the niches would have displayed Inca divinities fashioned from gold.  The stark, complex beauty of this room would have been covered by colorful tapestry of softest alpaca, this sacred space filled with a myriad precious things placed there by Incas to worship and honor their gods….

What the historical Juan de Cardeña (as well as my fictional version) would have seen would have been much like this photograph … an emptied and despoiled space, yet still timelessly wondrous in its beauty, the labor of its masons no a less a tribute to to the gods than the “idols” of the Inca goldsmiths, melted down by Spaniards to pay for their religious wars.






Hugo Campbell Sills, Guest Blogger: On the Mapuche and their Language

As the author of Arauco, to me one great (and strangely unanticipated) pleasure of publishing has been the bumping into some fascinating readers.  Hugo Campbell Sills—who, despite his name, could not be more Chilean—is one of them.  A graduate student of oenology, he is currently pursuing his degree in France, a co-author of, for example: Exopolysaccharide (EPS) synthesis by Oenococcus oeni: from genes to phenotypes (!!/??).  He is also a polyglot, who includes among his languages Spanish, English, Italian, French (these last two I presume from his residence in the respective countries), as well as native “Andean” languages, Quechua and Mapudungun among them.  A linguist as well, he has been actively involved in formulating a standard orthography for these last two languages (which they have not had to this day).  He is also deeply committed to the preservation of Mapuche language and culture.

Here’s Hugo Campbell Sills



And here’s Hugo’s blog: Amaruquyllur, which is (almost) entirely written in Mapudungun, in the orthography he has created.


Should you want to see, and hear, Hugo in France speaking Mapudungun and Quechua, check this out at Wikitongues: Hugo speaks in tongues

An instant admirer of Hugo’s enterprises, I asked him to be a guest on my blog, on the subject of the Mapuche and their language.  Below is what he wrote:


A joyful moment for the Mapudungun language

First of all, I must say that I feel honored to have been invited to write for this blog.  My first encounter with Arauco was in late 2013, as a gift I gave myself for Christmas.  I literally devoured the book: the storyline and the writing style got me hooked from the first paragraph.  As Ñamku felt the messages from Mapu, I got goose bumps, and I could see images passing through my head as if it were a movie. But my surprise increased when I discovered that John Caviglia was diving into the Mapuche language—Mapudungun—to afford us an even deeper sensation of being immersed in his scenario.

It is often said that it is impossible to understand a culture without knowing their language.  As a speaker of Mapudungun, my experience tells me that this is true, at least for this particular language and culture.  For Mapuche people, the düngu [ðəŋu] (language, word, voice, idea, issue, matter) plays a central role in defining their cosmology, not only because of the words they use to express their cosmos, but also in the construction of phrases and the way words relate to each other.  The way in which John introduces words and phrases in the Mapuche language as the story progresses makes us constantly remember the scenario in which the storyline is taking place.

Over the centuries Mapuche have constantly fought against people who tried to invade them: first against the Inca, who didn’t manage to conquer them; and then against the Spanish conquistadores, who encountered them in 1541. The Mapuche were actually the only South American indigenous people that managed to throw out the conquistadores.  As the Spaniards never conquered them, in 1641—after one century of war—the Spanish Crown capitulated, officially recognizing their independence and sovereignty over their territory, in an event called the Parlamento de Quilín.  Much later, in 1810, when Chile achieved its independence from the Spanish Crown, the Chilean liberator Bernardo O’Higgins reaffirmed their sovereignty and recognized the Mapuche as a sister nation. It wasn’t until 1861, after Chile won the War of the Pacific against Peru and Bolivia, and its army was mobilized, that the Chilean government decided to attack and conquer the Mapuche.  After this genocide the Mapuche people were absorbed by Chile, their lands taken, so that all that remains to them are small territories called “reducciones.”  But to this day they fight to protect their lands, culture and language.

Mapudungun is today a minority language that struggles to survive in a land where Spanish has become hegemonic.  As a country founded by colonizers, Chile’s modern culture is dominated by a criollo life style.  When Caviglia started to write this novel, materials about Mapudungun were scarce, if not impossible to find.  Grammar books, dictionaries, or any written Mapudungun were real jewels.  Moreover, at that time there wasn’t any standard orthography, which means that every single person wrote Mapudungun haphazardly, as they could.  Writers tried to deal with the phonology of Mapudungun (which is very different from that of Spanish) while at the same time attempting to represent it by adopting Spanish orthographic rules—the only language they knew to write.  I cannot but admire Caviglia for his work, not only because he introduced Mapudungun in his text, but also because he did it at a time when it seemed impossible.  He did such a wonderful job, that his orthography is almost identical to the newborn “alfabeto mapuche unificado” (unified Mapuche alphabet), which is an attempt by professional linguists to standardize this language’s orthography.

The history of written Mapudungun began in 1606, when the first grammar was written by Luis de Valdivia—a Jesuit—with clear evangelistic intentions. As terrible as it might sound, this text represents a cultural revolution, since for the first time it treats the Mapuche as people having a soul, implying that they deserve to be converted to the faith of God instead of being treated like sub-human creatures.  And indeed, religious institutions played a central role in alleviating the cruelty of the genocide taking place.  During the centuries that followed numerous works were written about Mapudungun.  From the early 17th until the early 20th century, there was a rich tradition of Mapudungun grammarians and researchers, always with the intention of religious conversion.  However, this did not prevent the Mapuche from preserving their culture until these days. As the brave weychafe (warriors) and kim che (sage people) that they always have been, they have managed to resist everything.

John Caviglia’s book is a true homage to the Mapuche people.  This great story will make you feel the storm that was the encounter of two completely different worlds, and the epic quality of this war that lasted for centuries, and still continues.  I am sure that this will also motivate people to get closer to Mapuche culture and language, or at least to make them know that they exist.  I can only say: Marichi wew, John, amulepe ta mi nütram! (ten times we will win, John, let your story continue!)



A Terrible Beauty: Chilean Volcanos

In Chile–that easternmost segment of the Pacific “ring of fire”–nothing is more chilean  than the volcanos sacred to the Mapuche, which is why I made sure to have one (along with araucarias) on the cover of Arauco … also why I made a volcano the header for this blog.  Volcanos are so numerous in Chile that apparently no one is quite sure of how many there might be–let’s say around five hundred–in a country map-active-volcanosroughly twice the size of the state of Montana.

These  figures are from an article in Wikipedia: List of volcanos in Chile.

Of this large and unknown number well over a hundred volcanos are geologically “active,” as schematically portrayed on the map to the right.


As the map indicates, many of Chile’s volcanos are embedded in the Andes, but geology chooses others to be solitary.


These titans are visible for miles and miles … like Llaima.





And here’s Llaima somewhat closer (photo from 2007).  My wife and I are standing on an old lava field, by a boulder ejected by the volcano.



Llaima erupted before our next visit in 2011.  The road had been bulldozed through cinder.


Here and there, there were miraculous blooms in the devastation.

IMG_7770But for miles, it might as well have been the moon.


Many Chileans live with the very real threat of an eruption.  Villarica, one of the most active of Chile’s volcanoes, is a case in point…. Here it displays its customary plume.


And here’s the volcano from Villarica, the eponymous city built at its base.

IMG_7744 In the streets of this city there are signs reminiscent of those of Smoky the Bear, warning of fire hazard–green, orange and red.  But in the case of Villarica they predict the likelihood of an eruption….

Eruptions can be catastrophic.  But they can also be spectacularly beautiful….

Beautiful eruption

And, as on the cover of Arauco, lightning enhances the show.  The photo below is part of an amazing series of an eruption in central Chile in 2011.


And no conclusion could be more apt than a link to that astounding set: Eruption photos 


The Mummies of the Atacama (and an “outtake” from Arauco)

The oldest mummies in the world are not in Egypt but in Chile, in the northern Atacama desert near the present day city of Arica.  The Atacama is so dry and so naturally rich in nitrate, that any corpse buried in it will naturally mummify.  However, the ancient peoples of the Chinchorro culture (roughly, between 5000 and 3000 BC) improved upon nature by artificially mummifying their dead.  Below are some images of the Chinchorro and their mummies, all from the Museo de San Miguel de Azapa, in Arica.

A diorama representing the ancient Chinchorro in their arid habitat:Living Chinchorros

Some “artificial” mummies:
Chinchorro mummies.   A row of “artificial” mummies
mummy row











One such mummy being “assembled”:
Preparing a mummy











Some less artificial mummies:


(A parenthetical factoid: Edvard Munch’s The Scream was influenced by a natural Peruvian mummy in a Paris museum.)               


Chinchorro mummified each other for thousands of years, in several ways, but I leave a more detailed explanation and discussion of this complex subject—fascinating, for me at least—to the following links: a short summary in Wikipedia; a more detailed explanation in National Geographic; and a theory as to why the Chinchorro mummified their dead in Discover Magazine.

Now, the mummies of the Atacama certainly have earned their place in a blog about Chile.  But—you may ask—what do they have to do with Arauco: a Novel?  Well … long as my novel is, it was far, far longer in its first draft.  And one of the many outtakes, concerns the Chinchorro mummies.  Not surprisingly, the passage occurs when Valdivia’s expedition has begun to traverse the Atacama Desert.  I excised it as too unhistorical, too long, too fantastic, and altogether too H. Ryder Haggard.  But I still kind of like it, and maybe those who have read Arauco may find it of interest, so I am resurrecting the “outtake” below.

PS Incidentally, I’m currently planning to retrace Juan’s journey from Cuzco to Santiago this fall (backwards), and I intend to meet some Chinchorro mummies, even though, when all was said and done, the Juan de Cardeña of Arauco did not. _______________________________________________________________________

Atacama “Outtake” from Arauco

Early the next morning, telling no one about this act of voluntary insanity, Juan chose to ride by himself up the arroyo where they were camped, following the gray-green scrub that undulated down its center, evidence of the life giving water that seeped below.  The walls of the dry watercourse were soon high enough to cast a welcome shade, even for a mounted man.  Knowing he could not get lost if he followed this dead stream, Juan let the horse choose both path and pace, having decided to fill his mind with desert until he was as empty as the place itself.  He stared at the fractured rocks, the lead-gray sand, the remorseless blue of the sky, riding until his horse stopped at a well sunk into the arroyo, a deep cavity lined with stone, the work of Incas perhaps.  Juan peered over to see steps descending to black water at the bottom.  And there were converging paths indicating that the well was regularly used.  Alarmed, Juan looked around, saw no one.  Deciding that any Indians that might have been there had vanished at his approach, he dismounted.  A ragged savage cry broke out on the rim of the arroyo when Juan was halfway down the well.  An attack!  He drew his knife and scrabbling up the stone steps, slammed his back into the bulk of Amadis, to protect him from arrows.  He was alone, surrounded!  But the Indian cries were retreating up the arroyo, in the direction of the cordillera.  Still, as the boulders strewn all about could easily hide a hundred warriors in their shadows, he waited.  When the shadows remained shadows Juan swung his leg over his horse, and from his new vantage, a stone’s throw away, he saw a head peering over a rock.  Black hair, wide black eyes, a headband worked with beads.

The Indian broke cover, running.  Then a half dozen dark forms detached themselves from boulders like shadows suddenly grown feet, scampering in ragged file through the garden of jumbled stone.  On an impulse Juan spurred his horse.

The Indians had a good lead and were astonishingly swift.  And the horse was slowed by the meanders of the path, so for some time Juan lost ground, his quarry disappearing around a curve ahead.  Giving them up for lost, he discovered that at the bend the boulders stopped and the riverbed turned to gravel, a surface better than any road in Spain.  Spurring, Juan saw the Indians at a distance, clambering up the canyon wall.  The climb seemed impossible, but they were making progress.

One of the climbers lost his toehold, hung for a heart-wrenching moment by one hand and fell, bouncing down the rough wall, slamming into the river bed.   Amazingly he sprang up and ran, limping though.  Soon Juan was behind him, slowing his horse to a trot, looking down at the back of the tightly braided head.  The Indian was barefooot, slender.  A bow and quiver were slung upon his back.  A rag was about his loins, and he was painted in black stripes, red dots, probably for war.  He seemed a youth about his age, and at the end of his endurance, for he was slowing.

Feeling like a bullfighter about to dispatch his wounded beast, Juan reined in as the Indian rounded another bend, and was just in time to see the youth disappear into the canyon wall.  Arrived at the site of the miracle he saw nothing but the fractured face of the cliff.   There were large crevices, yes, but nothing wide enough for even the slim youth to slip through.  To disappear so suddenly he must have run into a larger opening that to all appearances ended blind.  Juan scrutinized the cleft.  Did it conceal a trap?  But the savage only had bow and arrow, useless in close quarters.  Juan drew his knife, dismounting.  He had risked too much already to turn his back upon insanity, and vaguely, he wanted to apologize.  He shuffled into the narrow opening.  No one there.  As his eyes became accustomed he made out a space between boulder and cliff, wide as his shoulders, black as Hades.

Hearing nothing but his own breathing he slid in sideways, feeling his way with his knife, blade grating on stone from time to time.  The cleft narrowed until he had to shuffle sideways to continue.  Here the fissure was almost as straight, as smooth as an Inca alley, and Juan decided that it had been improved, if not created, by man.  Seeing faint light he stepped into what seemed a half lit cave.  After total darkness even this dimness was blinding and he paused.  A hammer hit his ribs and he staggered back.  The youth, not five paces away, stood in intolerable sunlight with the second arrow nocked, the obsidian arrowhead at once black and bright.   The “No!” swelling to Juan’s throat exploded as a grunt when the arrow slammed into his belly.  The third hit his ribs like a tiny fist of amazing power.

He had been saved by chain mail, but would the Indian learn from his failures and target his legs, his vulnerable throat?     The fourth arrow hit him high on the side with a hollow sound, knocking the air from his lungs.  Juan turned and squatted to protect his legs, his throat, and was hammered in the back twice more.  Then blessedly, nothing.  Juan looked: there was no one at the opening of the cave, if cave it was, and in a fighting crouch he emerged into the brilliance of the Atacama.   His sight was swimming, but he could make out what he interpreted as a large round church with short columns in the shaded edge, and the sky its roof.  At the center, by the altar, was the Indian youth with his arms folded, useless bow hanging from his hand.  Juan looked up, around.  The walls were sheer and higher than an ancient oak was tall.  There was no escape for the Indian.  And suddenly, vertiginously, Juan saw himself through his eyes, a glittering, alien thing.

He had led Juan into a place where he could not take his horse.  He had shot all his arrows into the foreign terror at close range, accurately, and sorcery had made them fall to the ground as if he had shot the canyon wall.  Now he was trapped himself, waiting for a death he did not expect to recognize.

Juan sheathed his knife.  At close range the Indian seemed little more than a child.  Juan turned his eyes to the temple, focusing on the closest pillar, and the sight knocked him back like a blow.  A man, erect and motionless!  He had completely misread the scene.  He drew, spinning like a compass gone amok, his knife the needle.  Every pillar was a man!  He leapt at the one nearest the exit, extending his body into a projectile heavy behind his blade.  The shock of contact twisted his wrist.  Juan janked, but his knife was stuck in the Indian, who did not move, white eyes wide with black slits for pupils, like the eyes of a cat turned sideways.  Beneath that horror, the mouth was a huge silent laugh.

Throwing himself back, rolling, Juan came up kneeling without his knife.   The Indian was slowly bowing.  Broken in half, he sank forward … and his hair fell off.

Juan scanned the church.  Every column was an Indian, arms stiff at his sides, flesh like eroded stone, eyes motionless in masklike faces.  Not one of them was breathing.  Mummies!  With a shiver of dread Juan knew he was safe, and worked his blade out from between mummy ribs.  He walked slowly to the Indian youth, empty hands extended in what he intended as a friendly gesture, saying, “No tengas miedo.  Soy amigo.”

How to convince the savage that he meant no harm?  Juan rummaged through his pouch, finding charqui.  He took a piece and gnawed, rubbing his stomach, extending a piece to the Indian, who made a pushing gesture, as if to shove the shrunken stuff away.  “Charqui,” he scoffed correctly, reaching into his own pouch for seeds which he offered in turn, grunting an Indian word.

Juan chewed and it was strange, oily, good … recalling sesame.  They ate and soon were trying to learn each other’s names.  J was impossible for the Indian, and after a half dozen failures he settled on An, shrugging, grinning.

Juan was impressed by this display of linguistic ability, for he could not get the half of the youth’s name, which was long as a paragraph.  Sticking a finger between his lips and flopping them, he produced “Abubabubabubabubabu,” rolling his eyes, an idiot.

A cackle broke from the Indian like a bubble, then he was laughing, pointing at himself, flipping his lips.  “Abuabu.”

Names settled, emboldened, Abuabu reached over to where his arrows had bounced, touching the chain mail with astonished fingertips.  Gesturing ‘wait til you see this’ Juan lifted armor and shirt to show him the livid bruises, one directly over his heart.

Wondering about the mummies, Juan went to examine.  The soft rock of the ampitheater had been excavated, so that every mummy had its niche, as in the portals of cathedrals.  Intrigued, Juan did the round.  Naked, the mummies were equal in the trance of death, their flesh like wrinkled gloves on bone.  A few children were to be told by size.  And the women could only be distinguished by their longer hair, for Juan could not make out a breast.  He did not scrutinize the mummied crotches.

Fleshed out with clay, the faces gripped his attention and would not let go, these masks of extraordinary force.  From where their power, he wondered.  Because so real, portraits built on actual bone, statues alive from within?  Because so still in that last peace, never closing their blind eyes, so uncaring of his care?

Black or red, flaked, the pigments of the masks had dimmed.  They had all been scalped (apparently), the hair removed and replaced as macabre wigs.  And staring from the crude, smooth faces fashioned from clay were eyes of shell.  With shock, Juan recognized the green eyes of Inés in stone, and hurried on, something nagging at his mind.  The Indians made statues of their dead as living, standing open eyed, nothing like the horizontal lords on coffin lids in Spanish churches, eyes closed in eternal rest.  The mummies were not depicted dead, waiting for the trump.  They were not out of sight, these statues of themselves.  They were not even, somehow, dead.  Why would the living create dead that looked back, Juan asked himself, a chill of horror crawling his spine.  He shook it off, noticing that the shadows had grown long and Abuabu was nowhere to be seen.

He hurried to the cleft, which this time seemed shorter, more artificial, and emerged into bare canyon, Amadis standing there with hanging head, probably asleep.  Even his tail was still.  While Cuzco was a cornucopia of what one did not recognize, in the Atacama there were not even flies, Juan thought.  How easily absences could happen without your even knowing.  Why had he not missed flies before today?  The Atacama was dead, but more important, death was like the Atacama.  He mounted Amadis, on the verge of a revelation inspired by mummies.  Maybe difference always surprised you, like death, like Cacafuego.

Suddenly a horde of warriors materialized, circling, arrows nocked but bows not drawn.  Abuabu stepped forward unarmed, hand elevated in the sign of peace, and spoke.

Juan recognized only his own name, An.  Abuabu gestured to a man who stepped forward, older but otherwise like every other Indian there: short, black, black haired, with braids, bangs, a scrap over his manhood, a pouch at his waist and face paint, ocher, with white smeared on the bridge of his nose.  He was unarmed, like Abuabu, and wore a headband like the mummies.

Having been introduced, Juan extemporized, “Encantado, senor Don Indio Importante,” commenting upon the pleasures of the meeting.  The Indian replied in halting Quechua, creating a contest as to who would be least understood.

Juan grinned and dismounted to the sound of muffled Indian speech the hesitant circle apprehensive of the horse.  Insanely, Juan was tempted to relieve tension with lightness, lift the horse’s tail and sniff his ass.  He had seen universal humor at work before, but was not made of Cacafuego’s stuff.  He sat down cross-legged instead, as he was bid by gesture, Quechua and example, with a small circle of Indians.

Juan could no more pronounce the name of the chief than Abuabu’s, and since humor was out of the question, he called him what he was, El Jefe, which he explained meant a big, big man in his own language.  Accepting his honorific with pleased dignity, the chief thanked Juan for sparing Abuabu.  Then in a long speech he asked, scratching pictures on a flat rock, how Juan could separate from his horse.  By way of explanation Juan went to Amadis, mounting and dismounting.  There were awestruck gasps and exclamations, a single smothered cheer.  Juan warmed to the drama, leaping on, leaping off, until the Indians were roaring.  Encouraged, he went to Abuabu and offered to hoist him up on horseback.  Abuabu froze, like a hare eye to eye with a fox, but every other Indian broke into a clamor of encouragement, clacking arrows against their bows.

Juan lifted Ababu’s foot, and before the youth realized what was happening, heaved him up.  He landed crosswise in the saddle, like a grain sack on a mule, and stayed there.  Leaving well enough alone Juan paraded him to the sound of Indian wonder and merriment, until the celebration was interrupted by the arrival of food, something very much like chicha, and wood, miraculously acquired in mid desert.  Juan helped proud Abuabu down.  Today he had become a living legend among his people.

They ate and drank, a fire was built.  Juan explained that he had come from Peru, land of the Incas.  That they seemed to understand.  But nothing else made sense to them: his white skin, ships, Spain, chain mail, the cross around his neck, Holy Mother the Church, the Pope, the horse, the metal of his knife, God in His Trinity, Valdivia, the Holy Roman Emperor.  Only when Juan pointed south and explained that he was going there did the Indians finally respond, making it clear there was nothing south.  They were emphatic.  They spat with disgust, they staggered and fell and pretended to die with their tongues hanging out.  They pointed back to Peru.

Then they responded to his questions.  Their village was up the canyon, and when they saw the monster with two heads, they ran there.  Abuabu returned with the extraordinary news that part of the monster was human in many ways, and friendly, that could talk and eat, that they had shared food.  He had even heard him burp.  The village council had decided to meet this marvel.

Juan asked where they got their wood.  They pointed east and shrugged.  That settled, nothing much else about them seemed particularly interesting to Juan.  They were nearly as naked as the desert.  He asked about the mummies, pointing to the cleft, standing with his his legs together arms at his sides, eyes wide.

El Jefe rolled his own, as if in Spain you had asked a simple village priest, who could not read, to explain the presence of God Almighty in the host.  Some things were at once so evident and so impenetrably mysterious as to be uninteresting, however holy, however much a central part of life.  Juan pressed for answers.  El Jefe spoke to an Indian in the inner circle who was like the others but older, gray haired, with no weapon.  His face was painted black save for white rings around his eyes, which gave him a look of perpetual wonder, like an owl.

He explained.  Juan gathered that the mummies were the dead of their ancestors, and the place where they were had been made by them.  No one made mummies like that any more.

Juan asked how they made mummies now, and learned that when the dead were buried in the sand they just turned dry.  Everybody knew that, he was told somewhat impolitely.  The white stranger was proving to be dim in wit.

Juan asked how the first men had made mummies.

Abuabu was chosen for the demonstration, lying down on the ground as the Indian explained the ancient ways.  First the chest was cut open and the entrails removed.  (Abuabu made a face).  The brain was removed through the nose with long wooden scoops and spoons.  (Abuabu’s eyes grew wide).  Then using the beak of a pelican (the drawing of the bird was unmistakable), the hair was removed.

Juan had a thousand questions but was embarrassed to ask: what about the women’s breasts, the brains and intestines, all the extra organs?  What about the eyes, the testicles?  It seemed to him that some of the most important human parts were discarded.  Were they discarded?

Stolid, the old Indian walked rote’s narrow path….  Next, you filled the cavities with hot coals and ashes.  (Abuabu was beyond reaction).  Then you removed the coals and ashes and put in feathers and rags.  The chest was tied tight with a rope, the arms cut off at the elbow, legs severed at the knees, and the joints scraped flat and reassembled with thongs to make the limbs straight and immovable.  Finally a stick was driven up the ass along the spine, and the backbone lashed to it.  Abuabu wiggled as if tickled, and the Indians roared.

Then rods were driven from each ankle to the skull.  The mummy could then stand up.  (Abuabu demonstrated).  Cheers.

The old Indian worked on the face with clay, replaced the eyes with seashells.  Abuabu squinted, upright, unseeing, turned into an unmoving pillar, a silent oracle, a statue made of meat….

Under a borrowed Indian blanket, Juan slept restlessly that night.  The next morning El Jefe and Abuabu tried to convince him to go to their village, to feast.  Juan refused.  He was missed, he knew.  And Amadis needed forage.

Returning the invitation Juan found no one willing to come with him.  El Jefe explained that Almagro and his men had not passed through their village.  But he came close enough and left a reputation.  The white men had taken all the food they could find, including the seed for next year’s planting, as well as many men and women.

He was interrupted by a cry echoing from the canyon rim, and in an instant a rumble became audible, growing louder, roaring up the defile.  Horsemen.  They had, Juan judged, reached the first bend and spurred their horses to a gallop, just as he had.  In moments they would arrive.

El Jefe and his people vanishing soundlessly into the cleft, but Abuabu hung back, babbling, eyes wide with the terror of yesterday.  Confined by canyon walls, the hammering roll of iron on stone grew into an apocalyptic roar as Abuabu backed slowly into darkness, pleading.  And although Juan did not know his language he knew what he was asking.

The dogs appeared, running free and silent, two greyhounds and two mastiffs in full armor: collars with razor sharp knives, a metal plate on the forehead, mail about the neck, steel on the chest of the mastiffs, chain on the greyhounds.  They were the beasts of the Apocalypse.  And behind them came the horsemen.

Juan was seeing with the eyes of Indians, and when the dogs neared he drew in reflex, that familiar act returning him to himself, if not to Spain, and he was thinking clearly, coldly.  The dogs would find the cleft, and he had sworn (albeit silently) to Abuabu, that he would not let the white demons harm his people.  But how to hold back the Spanish once they knew that there was gold and silver, however little, to be had by killing?

Mendoza’s whistle brought the dogs to a halt.  They sat, straining at an invisible leash.  The horsemen rumbled up, Mendoza pale under his hat, Valdivia stern, Marmolejo ready for holy war.  Pedro scrutinized the child of his heart for damage.  Inés, slipped from her horse, crying out, then crying on his shoulder.  Juan fought back tears himself.  Then she was standing back, holding hands, saying they had been so worried.  She scolded him for leaving without a word.

But Juan was looking at the dogs, who were staring at the cleft.

Mendoza said, “There are savages in there,”  indicating the narrow opening with a gesture.

The Lieutenant Governor looked around, saying he saw no Indians.  Mendoza shrugged.  Savages trained all their lives to become difficult to see, but their genius in vanishing was as nothing to the genius of his dogs in finding them.

Juan ran to the cleft, blocking the entrance with his body, knife drawn, crouching.  The Governor stared, unbelieving.

Inés shrieked “No!” drawing her knife at a dead run, black skirts billowing with speed.  Pedro, too encumbered with armor to do well on his feet, swung up onto his horse.

Valdivia turned to Mendoza and said, low, cold, furious, “Stop this now. Ahora mismo, te lo digo!”

The whistle came too late.  The greyhound bitch had already leapt for the arm that held the knife, the male for Juan’s throat.  Slower in reflex, the mastiffs stopped in their tracks.

Juan knew the dogs were trained into predictability, and at the last moment he switched knife hands and spun.  This tactic, which worked with Incas, failed with the inhuman speed of the dogs.  The bitch missed, corkscrewing in the air, clashing into the canyon wall.  But the male struck Juan’s shoulder with his armored weight, knocking him over.  Instantly on their feet, the dogs pressed their attack, an army of feet and fangs and blades.  No instruction had prepared Juan for this.

Inés shifted from foot to foot, unable to find a target in the twisting, snarling blur.  The whistle came again, but the dogs were deep in blood lust.  Juan stabbed blindly backhand into the maelstrom of flesh and metal grinding him into the ground.  The knife was twisted from his hand.  A yelp.  Another whistle.  Then quickly as it began it ended.  The feet, the fangs, the collar knives were gone, the male greyhound trotting proudly toward Mendoza while the bitch tried to follow, dragging herself with her front paws.  Juan’s knife was lodged in her backbone, and she was vainly scrabbling.

Ignoring her, Mendoza went to the male and removed his armor.  Another invisible signal turned the dog immobile, a panting statue.  Mendoza drew his sword and beheaded him in one clean sweep, then removed the bloody armor of the bitch.  Without a word, methodically, he began to load all the metal in his saddlebags, the focus of frozen astonishment.

Inés and Pedro found that much of the blood covering Juan was from the bitch.  He brushed his friends away almost rudely, though, apprehensive, feeling faint.  The world was blurry and at its center was Valdivia, stern, magisterial, twirling his waxed beard into a finer point as he searched the face of his secretary for the cause of this inexplicable behavior.  His irresponsibility had caused the death of two invaluable dogs, perhaps worth more to the expedition than Juan himself.  His tone said it all, “Eh?”

Juan replied, “I’m sorry, Don Pedro.  I just rode until it was too late to return.”

The Lieutenant Governor was outraged at the patent lie.  “What secret is in that hole, worth fighting against four war dogs?  Eh?  Your virginity?”  Valdivia would have said worse, but Inés was listening.

Juan’s ears were burning under his Inca helmet.  He stammered, “I, I made a friend.  I mean an Indian friend.  Just a boy.”  Juan demonstrated the insignificant height of his new acquaintance with his hand.  “He’s in there.”

“Does the village of this midget have food?”

Sweet Jesus help him!  Valdivia’s eyes could pierce trough every lie.  Food was bad enough.  But gold!

“He is very afraid, ” Juan pleaded.

“What?” yelped Valivia.  “The midget is frightened!”

“Yes, but no food.  Not really.  Just some seeds we ate.  Yes, ate them all.”

Valdivia was speechless, mustaches quivering with anger, but before Juan lied again, and worse, Heaven interceded in the human and yet angelic form of Inés de Suarez.

“Valdivia, for the love of God, this is not a dungeon of the Inquisition.  Here you are, yelling at the wounded child, interrogating him like a Jew who has been dining on Christian children, when all he did is try to protect his little Indian friend.  Look, he’s shaking like a leaf … even more than your mustache.  And he’s literally dripping with blood.  For shame.  He needs to be cleaned and bandaged, not hectored.”

And that was that.  Valdivia gave his beard a yank, bending it out of true, and stalked to his horse muttering, as the ministering angel retrieved materials from her saddlebags to heal the so-called child.  Coldly, he asked Mendoza why he had killed a valuable dog.

No less cold, no less angry, Mendoza replied, “I do not tolerate disobedience.”


In search of the aboriginal Mapuche machi (III). The rewe (or rehue).

rehue2As the kultrun, or drum, is inseparable from the spiritual vocation of Mapuche machi,  so is the rewe.  But, although shamans of many cultures utilize drums, the rewe is, I think, unique to Mapuche shamanism.  And there is no doubt in my mind that it was an inseparable part of a machi’s life at the time of the Spanish advent.

What, then, is a rewe…?  Physically, it is a pole carved from the trunk of a tree (usually laurel or oak) and buried in the ground, with steps hewn into it that the shaman can ascend.  The number of steps varies from three to nine, with seven being perhaps most typical as significant in Mapuche symbolism.  The rewe is situated so that the machi climbing it faces east–with its rising sun–and at the summit a face is carved.

Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2

Spiritually, the rewe is an axis mundi, the center of the shaman’s spiritual life, and that of the community.   Made from a tree, and “rooted” in the earth like a tree, it rises toward the heavens.  Branches of klon (maqui, in Spanish–Aristotelia chilensis), triwe (Laurelia sempervivens) and bamboo are tied to the sides of the rewe. Like the sacred tree of Norse mythology, the Yggdrasil–it unites lower realms with higher. Standing upon it, the machi  becomes a conduit between realms physical and spiritual, human beings and spirits, enabling them to communicate.


Since the rewe centers the community’s spiritual life, religious ceremonies are held around it. But above all the rewe is the center of the spiritual life of the machi.  It is an important part of the initiation ceremony.  Thereafter, the machi ascends the rewe to face the rising sun and pray.  The rewe can be part of the machitun, or healing ceremony.  And the ancestral, counseling and guiding spirit, the filew is thought to live in the rewe, so that when it grows decayed or begins to topple, the machi  falls ill.

In my next post of  this series, I will refer to the remarkable book of Ana Mariella BacigalupoShamans of the Foye Tree, which on its cover portrays a male Mapuche shaman….

shaman bacigalupe

In our search for the original Mapuche machi, we have already discussed the clothing he wears, as largely anachronistic.  We have also discussed the kultrun the machi holds, and the rewe by which he sits, as essential to his being and practice, as shaman.  Still to be discussed is the complex, fascinating question of machi sexuality.

Why is he dressed as a woman…?





Porotos Granados–A pre Columbian recipe with a Chilean name

Before the Spanish advent, of necessity, Mapuche were largely vegetarian.  They had no cattle, goats, sheep or pigs, which were introduced by Europeans.  And in their forests the largest edible animal was the smallest deer in the world, the pudu, which is thirteen to seventeen inches tall:







The Mapuche had domesticated
chickens (not surprisingly called Araucanas) which lay blue eggs, and they probably also had domesticated ducks.  But they were farmers essentially, largely doing without “red meat,” their staples instead being plants unknown to Europeans of the time: potatoes, corn, and what we North Americans now call ‘beans’ (phaseolus vulgaris … as opposed to the garbanzos and fava beans eaten in sixteenth century Europe).  And they also cultivated squash, equally unknown to the contemporary Spanish….  Therefore, arguably, nothing is more natively American than that delicious triad of corn, beans and squash (known as the “three sisters” by native North Americans).

That said, there is–somewhat ironically–a quintessentially Chilean recipe in which the principal ingredients are nothing other than the three pre-Columbian “sisters.”  It is called “Porotos Granados,” poroto being the word for ‘bean’ in Chilean Spanish, and ‘granados‘ presumably referring to the grains of corn.  This is a recipe I have loved since childhood, which I here would here like to share with you….

As it is now harvest season, the essential ingredients are available in our garden.



These are so-called “shell” beans, as shucked fresh out of the husk.   They are often called ‘Cranberry Beans’ in the United States.





Almost any corn will work … a little old and tough–as with these late autumn ears from our garden–will do fine.  In fact Chileans use an enormous kind of corn, called “ Diente de Caballo,” or Horse’s Tooth, in traditional recipes, which is nowhere near sweet nor tender by North American corn-on-the-cob standards.





In Chile there are huge squash in the markets of which you buy a chunk for Porotos Granados. Here in the US  I have used both acorn and butternut squash with wonderful results.  But if I had to choose, I would probably go with butternut….




One last thing remains to be said before my version of this recipe:  aboriginal as the triad of essential ingredients might be, Chilean porotos granados include elements of European origin, olive oil and basil being foremost.  Onions and garlic as we know them should also be added to that list….



3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 medium squash, peeled and chopped into chunks
2 cups of fresh, shelled cranberry beans
The kernels from 2 or 3 ears of corn (2 cups or so)
3 tablespoons of fresh, chopped basil
salt and pepper

Heat the oil over medium heat in a largish pot.  Sauté onions until translucent.  Stir in the garlic and sauté a minute or two.  Stir in the squash and sauté a few more minutes.  Add a quart of water (or more, for something more like a soup).  Add beans and basil, and simmer half an hour, or until beans are tender.  Add corn, season with salt and pepper to taste, and simmer for five more minutes.

Note: Feel free to alter most of the “measurements” in this dish.  I personally never pay real attention.

Also … a traditional garnish which I would NEVER do without is called “color” by chilenos, for reasons you will appreciate if you choose to make it.  It’s easy, and I never measure the ingredients.  So … take maybe four tablespoons of olive oil and heat over medium heat in a small saucepan.  Add several cloves of finely chopped garlic (or as much as your garlic mania dictates) and fry until the garlic flavor has suffused the oil, but certainly not to the point that the garlic is browned.  Then add enough good paprika that the oil turns genuinely dark.  Stir a few times, and put a spoonful or two of this on your porotos….

Finally, porotos granados reheat wonderfully.








In Search of the aboriginal Mapuche machi (II). The drum, or kultrun.

This is the second post of a series on Mapuche shamanism.

In the first, I argued that many machi “trappings,” particularly the silver jewelry, are modern.  In effect, the present day machi wears what the Mapuche woman (domo) puts on for special occasions.  Here’s a wonderful  postcard of a contemporary domo in her “finest.”

Mapuche domo

Mapuche domo



The reader will note that the machi of the previous posting wears much the same silver jewelry.  The head band is a trarilongko … the pectoral pendant is a trapilacucha.





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Here’s the machi at the wetripantu ceremony I photographed, for comparison.



Until fairly recent times, it seems, Mapuche of both sexes wore some sort of cloth headband (trarilongko).  But the wearing of silver is a consequence of Spanish contact.  The aboriginal Mapuche knew both gold and silver, and had their own words for them.   Perhaps they had some idea of what these “precious” metals meant to the Inca, with whom they fought.  But the wearing of silver was ultimately a consequence of trading with the Spanish once they were there to stay.  Having no use for money as itself–at least at the outset–such coins as the Mapuche acquired were beaten into ornament.

So, having stripped the contemporary Mapuche machi of silver and modern cloth, what is left from ancient times…?  I propose that what has survived has to do with what is indispensable to their calling….  And I think myself probably right in assuming that the drum of the machi (the kultrun, or kultrung) is the first of these things, and even in these days much as it was in times aboriginal.  Rare is the machi portrayed as such at any time–say for portrait, or postcard–who does not hold drum and drumstick.  And this drum, to all appearances, has remained more or less the same in size, construction, and decoration of the drum skin.  Here”s a typical example …


which demonstrates that the head of the drum is always ritually divided by paint into four sections (although other elements vary).  The body, traditionally carved out of solid wood, is hemispherical and represents the universe: the drum skin is the surface of the earth; the space above is wenu mapu, the heavens; and the base is the underworld.  The lines dividing the quadrants of the drum skin figure forth the cardinal directions, and the quadrants themselves represent the four seasons and the four winds…. In short, the drum represents the Mapuche universe, in a way that allows the shaman to play a kind of “music of the spheres.”

The design which divides the drum skin into four varies (as well as the elements depicted in each quadrant–which frequently represent the sun, moon, and stars).  Here are some other examples:


It is worth mentioning that machi place pairs and ‘quadruplets’ of small objects inside their drums, so that they add their part to the noise produced.  These objects are divided into ‘male’ and ‘female,’ according to their qualities and attributes.  For example, the seed of maize, wool, the leaves of laurel and kopiwe, llanka and lican (sacred stones) are added as ‘female,’ because of their association with fertility and life. Some objects considered ‘male’ are chili and foye leaves, charcoal and volcanic rock, because of their association with exorcism and fire.  Interestingly, therefore, the drum not only figures forth the universe, but also contains within itself the representation of both sexes, and thus adds this additional element to its totality.

Endnote: This post contains much material taken from Ana Mariella Bacigalupo’s book on Mapuche machi: Shamans of the Foye Tree

To be continued….




Interview by Bryn Hammond

Bryn Hammond is an author living in Australia who is writing an amazing trilogy about Genghis Khan, titled Amgalant, based on The Secret History of the Mongols.   Her research has been exhaustive … but her prose is truly and wonderfully anti-pedantic. She takes us to where we can live and breathe and have our being along with such Mongols as changed the world–which, if you ask me, is what the best historical novels do.  Her style is fresh, and all her own….

And I am delighted to report that she interviewed me about Arauco, sending me wonderful questions (that I am still mulling over), to which I responded in her blog….

The Q&A, in Bryn’s blog: amgalant.com/

My review of the first volume of her trilogy: //www.goodreads.com/book/show/13419204-amgalant-one

In search of the aboriginal Mapuche machi

Although I in no way pretend to be an expert on Mapuche shamanism, this is the first of several posts in which I will attempt to present how I arrived at the shamans of my novel….

While in Chile in 2007, my wife and I stayed  in a Mapuche campground near Lake Budi, in the south.  The Chilean government was encouraging ethnotourism, and these were Mapuche attempting to keep their ethnic roots alive (presumably with government help).  We were fortunate to arrive  at a time when they were celebrating wetripantu–the New Year.  They performed traditional songs and dances, and a machi presided at the ceremony.  (You can click on this photo–or any other in the blog–to enlarge it.)
Machi ceremony:1

Above you see the machi playing on her sacred drum, the kultrung.  Behind her are two men playing a circular instrument, the  trutruka.  Another man plays on a bull’s horn.  Behind them is the thatched side of the traditional Mapuche dwelling, the ruka.

Worth mentioning is the fact that the men are wearing contemporary clothing, while the machi is ritually dressed.  She is barefoot, and wearing silver jewelry.  Also worth mentioning is that her apron is contemporary cloth, colored with modern dyes.

Here, the Mapuche dance around the sacred foye (or foiqui) tree, carrying branches taken from it….  Note the little learner, on the left, holding his own branch.

Dancing Mapuche


And now, a not quite so contemporary photo of three machi, taken in 1903….

Some things have not changed.  They are all dressed as women.  And their kultrung are pretty much the same.  Those are the constants.  However, all the silver jewelry, and all the contemporary cloth (save perhaps for the machi on the left), are simply just not there, in a clearly formal portrait.  Also, the brightly colored apron is gone….  In a little more than one century, at least the machi trappings have radically changed.

To be continued….





PDF files of the Mapudungun/English glossary now on website

I know it’s a hassle having to go back to Arauco‘s glossary at the back of the paperback, or worse, in your e-reader, so now there are PDF files available in both  illustrated and unillustrated versions.  Just go to the page  Mapudungun: Language of the Mapuche, mouse down to A Mapudungun/English glossary, mouse over to one the PDF files of the glossary, and click.  Voila!  So now you can download either glossary to your desktop, or print it.

Next, I’m planning to do a series of posts on Mapuche shamanism.

Happy reading!

Names on the Land now Called Chile

CHILE MAP copyThis map depicts cities founded by Valdivia.   It also situates the fictional location of the cave of Ñamku, which I imagine to be in a present day park named Nahuelbuta, on the summit of a mountain on the coastal range which contains some of what little is left of virgin forest.

Important rivers are also depicted.  Of these, the Bío Bío became the de facto boundary between Spanish Chile and the lands of the Mapuche, during the 300 or so years that the see-saw conflict between them lasted.

For a summary of this conflict, see: Arauco War, in Wikipedia. Interestingly, this article states that but for fears that other nations might occupy Chile, the Spanish might have abandoned it in the late 16th century, as not worth the war.  The reader might note that, of present day Chile, the third of it north of Santiago composes the Atacama Desert, largely uninhabitable, and considered worthless until the discovery of its minerals (nitrate, copper, and etc.), while the third south of the Bío Bío was Mapuche until the latter part of the 19th century … all of which gives credit to the idea of the abandonment of this distant land … which might lead one wildly to speculate as to what would have happened if the Mapuche actually won their war….



Juan de Cardeña’s journey to Santiago

As Juan de Cardeña’s place of birth is not recorded, I had him born in a typical villlage of Extremadura, that empoverished province of Spain which produced so many conquistadores.  Of necessity, the locus of his nativity will remain unmapped.  But from Sevilla on his route is the stuff of History, following that of the Spanish treasure ships to Panama…


Having crossed the Atlantic (stopping at the Azores), below is depicted Juan’s route through Panama to Callao, Peru.  (Note that the distance from Sevilla to Cuzco is 5500 miles–as the crow flies.)















And the following map gives an idea of his journey from Cuzco to Santiago–approximately 1800 miles on horseback.

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Images of Pedro de Valdivia

Although Valdivia had secretaries to record his words, he had no one to record his image.  Therefore, all we have are flights of the imagination fueled by words and, often, by misconceptions about the time.

Below is the iconic image (if Google Images is any judge) of Pedro de Valdivia.  It is most definitely retrospective, as the portrait was done in the nineteenth century.

















And here is  an equally retrospective version of Valdivia’s founding of Santiago, complete with a subservient Indian in imagined costume. Fundacion_de_Santiago

The araucaria tree, or peweñ

In almost all cases, if a North American or European recognizes a plant or animal in Chile it is not indigenous.  A virtual island isolated by the Atacama Desert, the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, this is a land which has largely evolved its own flora and fauna … a land of haunting strangeness for the distant traveler.  And of its plants and animals, none is more iconic than the national tree of Chile–the araucaria.  The same Spaniards who renamed the Mapuche araucanos named this pine, but the Mapuche themselves call it the peweñ, and the subset of their people who in indigenous times lived on the slopes of the Andes and subsisted on its nuts the peweñche.

Below is the characteristic silhouette of a mature pehueñ.  The photo was taken in Nahuelbuta National Park in Chile, with the Andes and its volcanoes in the misty distance.

Nahuelbuta preserves some of the last of the virgin rain forest of the coastal range in Chile, and this is what it looks like, magical, almost impassable, bedecked with moss.  Note that the understory is bamboo.


Here, the characteristic bark of a huge, mature araucarIa….













And below, we are looking up at a mature and mossy peweñ….IMG_7490





Spanish war dogs

The Spanish use of dogs to hunt, kill and torture natives in the Indies is both attested to and illustrated by historians of the sixteenth century.  And, although I came across no written evidence that this practice made its way south to Chile, the fact that it might have does not stretch the imagination.  Hence, the Nuño Beltrán de Mendoza of my novel.

Most of my information having to do with Spanish war dogs and the dogging of natives derives from

Dogs of the Conquest, by John and Jeannette Varner.  51vAH8q8UYL._SL500_AA300_Nuño Beltrán de Mendoza is a slightly renamed version of the historical Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, about whom the authors write….

” …of noble blood, blond-haired, fair-skinned … in 1526 he assumed command in Pánuco, where he is said to have committed atrocities never before heard of in Nueva España.  Settlers who resisted him, he committed to death without trial; and on one occasion he nailed a Spaniard to a tree by his tongue because the man’s language had been impertinent….  

Readers of Arauco will recognize not only the general appearance of the dogger, but an inspiration for a scene in my novel….

Guzmán’s torture and execution of the native cacique, Tangaxoan, described by Pedro Gómez de San Benito in Arauco (slightly embelished, as was his wont), is depicted in an engraving from the time:

 And here, Balboa has natives accused of sodomy dogged:

Worse images exist, of meat markets where the cuts are human, which I will spare my reader.  But they are brought up by Pedro Gómez de San Benito in Arauco.

And, to conclude, here are some of they ways war dogs were armored….


The ruka of the Mapuche

In the sixteenth century, Mapuche lived in windowless thatched dwellings called ruka.  I doubt that these days any more Mapuche live in ruka than Lakota Sioux live in tipi, but they are still built here and there by Mapuche keeping ancient traditions alive.  Remarkably, these simple, quickly built dwellings, keep people dry in a very wet climate.

Here’s one from the lake district of Chile, erected at a place where indigenous crafts were sold….


And here’s another my wife and I came across by the side of the road, during our travels in southern Chile in 2007:

That same trip, we stayed in a campground run by Mapuche, where not only were we the only gringos … we were the only tent campers.  The other guests were Chilean; they were staying in a ruka.  And the Mapuche were in the process of building another ruka for future guests, so that we were fortunate enough to witness the process of construction.  Here’s the view from our tent….In the background is the ruka the chilenos were staying in.  In the foreground is the ruka being built.  And, in the immediate foreground, are some chickens.

Here are Mapuche at work, thatching the side:

And here’s the ruka, both sides thatched:


The roof structure:

Finally, some interiors…. First, one with a Mapuche loom.

A ruka roof (note the smoke hole).

And last, our young host at the Mapuche campground, Carlos, playing a trutruka for us.  Note the fire built in the middle of the ruka floor, by his feet.



The creation of Arauco’s cover art

I spent my latter youth in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and in the Carnegie library there (which gave weight to the seriousness of reading by resembling a mausoleum) the historical novels that I loved were illustrated, often with a cover image pasted on, and with a few full color images inside, pasted on themselves.  Lesser black and white backups were interlarded here and there. Gulliver!  Natty Bumppo!  Robinson Crusoe!  And much as I am committed to good prose as an adult, I have never outgrown my youthful addiction to the rich perspective that images give the page.

That said, when recently  Arauco was finished as a text, I wanted something exceptional for the cover.  Trolling the net for actual painters, after much searching and travail I stumbled onto Tyler Jacobson, a young illustrator who will definitely knock your socks off, whether he’s portraying captain Ahab or Yoda.  You can check out his work at: http://tylerjacobson.blogspot.com/  and http://www.tylerjacobsonart.com/#portfolio

And when to my delight Tyler took on the project, I told him that what I wanted for the cover was a depiction of the prologue to the novel, which briefly can be summarized as….

The albino Mapuche shaman, Ñamku, is waiting on a mountain top for the setting of the sun, when he can take off the mask he wears, since daylight is too bright for him.  Behind him, the sacred volcano, Lonkimai, is erupting.  Before him in the distance is fucha lafken–the great sea, which we know as the Pacific.  In his left hand he holds something which has been brought to him across the Atacama Desert.  The messenger bringing this says white people have come from the sea, white people that are both warriors and sorcerers, white people who have killed many Inca.  And now they are coming south, to Arauco.  Ñamku wonders what the coming of these white men means to the Mapuche, and to him, the only white man he has ever known.  And he wonders what the small object he holds might be, for it is in no way like anything Mapuche …. not knowing it is a crucifix.  He waits for sunset, when he will meditate, and pray.  Perhaps the ancestors will give him a vision of what is happening, and what is to be….

Tyler sent me four thumbnails:

Of them he preferred the fourth, in which Ñamku is backlit by the lightning of the erupting volcano behind him.  I liked it very much indeed, but hammered at details, wanting the araucaria trees that would sign the landscape as Chilean … also a more meditative and embracing gesture of the shaman.  The wings of the hawk headdress needed to be buckled, as in Arauco, and I wanted Ñamku wearing a medicine pouch and carrying his sacred drum–the kultrung–etc., etc–also as in the novel.  Tyler went on to this more developed sketch
which gorgeously represents the prologue to the novel.  But … no Mapuche of the sixteenth century wore a belt.  And the medicine pouch of  Ñamku is made of white leather in the novel.  Also, as I wanted the text of the cover to be on the bottom, I asked for more “bleed” there.  So Tyler sent the drawing below,  from which he would paint….
I asked him to include a small crucifix in the left hand at the last minute….  And here is the finished painting for the cover.  Awesome!  And I loved doing it.  Now I can start dreaming about an illustrated edition….

A Meditation on a Poem by Neruda

The chileno perhaps most internationally celebrated, Pablo Neruda, was born in southern Chile, where much of the action of Arauco takes place.  As a man, Neruda loved his native land, and as a poet he wrote about its beauty, its people, and its bloody origin.  His massive poetic summation of his native land–Canto Generalhas at its heart the Spanish invasion of the South American Continent, culminating with the war recounted inArauco, including some of its principal protagonists.  You will find Pedro de Valdivia there as a greedy villain and slaughterer of innocents, Inés de Suárez a bloodthirsty harpy by his side.  You will find Lautaro there also, as noble warrior and heroic martyr….

In his Canto General, in a poem titled Valdivia, Neruda distills the central action of my novel into a scathing diatribe so full of suffering and anger that I personally find it difficult to read.  Here’s my hasty translation of it….

Pablo Neruda

Valdivia (1544)

But they returned.
(Pedro, he was called)
Valdivia, the intrusive captain,
cut my land with the sword
of thieves: “This is yours,
this is yours, Valdés, Montero,
this is yours, Inés, this the site
for the town hall.”
They divided my  land
like a dead donkey.
this fragment of moon and greenery,
devour this river in twilight,”
as the enormous Andes
elevated bronze and blankness.

Arauco appeared.  Adobe, towers,
streets, the silent
master of the house awakened smiling.
He worked with his hands soaked
by its water and its mud, brought
clay and poured mountain water:
but could not be a slave.
Then Valdivia, executioner,
Attacked with fire and death.
So the blood began,
the blood of three centuries, oceanic blood,
the blood atmosphere that overspread my land
and endless time, like no other war.
The irate vulture emerged
from his funereal mourning
and bit the Promauca, broke
the pact written in the silence
of Huelén, in the Andean air.
Arauco began to boil its dish
of blood and stone.
Seven princes
came to parley.
They were imprisoned.
Before the eyes of Arauco
they cut off the noble heads,
the executioners goading each other on.  Completely
soaked by entrails, screaming,
Inés de Suárez, soldier,
supported the imperial necks
with the knees of an infernal harpy.
And she threw them over the palisade,
bathing herself in noble blood,
covering herself with scarlet clay.
So they thought to dominate Arauco.
But here the shaded unity
of tree and stone, spear and countenance,
transmitted this crime in the wind.
The tree on the frontier knew
the fisherman, king, magician,
Antarctic workman knew,
the sources of the Bío Bío knew.
So was born our native war.
Valdivia thrust a dripping lance
Into the rocky entrails
of Arauco, sunk a hand
into its pulse, tightened
his fingers on the heart of Arauco,
spilled the sylvan veins
of the workers,
the pastoral dawn,
ordered the martyrdom
of the kingdom of the forest, put to fire
the master of the forest’s house,,
cut off the hands of the cacique,
returned his prisoners
with noses and ears cut off,
impaled Toqui, assassinated
the girl guerrilla,
and with a bloodied glove
marked the stones of our land,
leaving it full of dead,
and solitude and scars.

Powerful, yet based on more than one paradox.  Implicit in Neruda’s argument there is an edenic side to the rhetorical coin which censures the Spanish invasion of Arauco–a yearning for a past and a people that had no written language, a people who were melded to the land as the poet yearns to be through incantatory language … a “canto,” or song.  In poetry yearning for a time before language–strangely wishing to erase itself–a Chileno attacks the Spanish invasion that ultimately created the native land he celebrates, and his very being as a poet writing Spanish, in strange and failed suicide….

At the time of the Spanish invasion, there were those who thought Eden to be in South America.  And some, then, thought the “Indians” were what later times would call noble savages.  Ercilla, author of La Araucana, was one of them, Neruda following in his footsteps….  And Thomas More drew inspiration for his Utopia from the accounts of the Americas.  To utopians like these the Americas were a kind of returning to the beginning, giving Europe a version of a time machine that afforded an opportunity to begin again–Europe’s second chance at getting things right.  So the Juan Lobo of my novel believed until he discovered, by experiencing conquest, his mistake.  Given the chance to travel back in time to Eden, Europe used technology devised by the Fall of man to turn the return into a bloodbath. And Neruda falls into this utopic tradition, demonizing the invaders, in a magnificent act of compassion rooted in a sense of rootlessness.

But of course, Eden was never in–say–the present Venezuela.  And neither were the natives of the Americas “noble,” the very word Neruda uses in his poem, both ironically and anachronistically, since the Mapuche had no landed nobility, not to mention the “imperial necks” of his poem.  Indeed (in celebrated if not necessarily factual acts) the Mapuche are said to have made Valdivia swallow molten gold as part of the torture leading to his death, and “tasted” of his heart, after….  In “El corazón de Pedro de Valdivia, Neruda–poetry his periphrasis–imaginatively joins the Mapuche in this legendary tasting of Valdivia’s heart by beginning the poem in the second person plural: “Llevamos a Valdivia bajo el árbol.” (We took Valdivia under the tree.)  And with highest euphemism it concludes with Neruda in the first person (“Yo hundí…) sinking in his teeth into, not a heart, but the many metaphors produced by the not mentioned heart….  So, the Neruda who decries Spanish torture in other poems, here identifies with native ritual savagery through poetic circumlocution.  In short, Neruda definitely takes sides….

I write all this in order to situate my novel in a gamut of opinion as to what actually happened when the Spaniards invaded.  My own (impossible) attempt was to represent the times in Arauco as they were, and both peoples as they were, without demonizing or ennobling either.  That is, in my opinion, what makes the best historical novels what they are–-the hard-won sensation fiction can create of being there, as if narration were the transparent air afforded to one emerging from a time and space machine