Five Mythical Birds from Around the World

Alicanto Image by JohnnyMellado – CC BY-SA 4.0

Birds have always played and important part in human culture appearing in the legends, myths and fables of people all around the world.  Presented here are five legendary and mythical birds from different parts of the world, each with their own folklore and fables attached.

The Legendary Alicanto Bird

In Chilean folklore and mythology the Alicanto is a strange, mythical, bird that inhabits a strange but very real place known as the Atacama Desert ( Desierto de Atacama) and other parts of Chile, South America.   The desert is rich in minerals and ores and according to legend is home to a mythical bird called the Alicanto that is said to eat different ores of metal.  Its wings are said to shine at night with beautiful metallic colors and its eyes radiate colorful lights.   These wonderful illuminations are said to be caused by the different metals it has eaten.  For example, if it eats gold it emits a golden light or if it eats silver its light is silvery and if it eats copper it may be reddish though its wings are often described as being a coppery green.  Sometimes it may eat more than one kind of metal resulting in different colors being emitted.  Because of the light it emits it does not have a shadow.

Because of the heavy nature of its diet the bird spends most of its time on the ground being too heavy to fly and considered flightless.  When it has not eaten for a long time it becomes lighter and can run much faster.  It lays two eggs whose shells are made from the metal it eats.  According to folklore, miners and prospectors would secretly follow an Alicanto hoping it would lead them to a rich deposit of metal ore or a secret horde of treasure known as an entierros.  These legendary hoards were said to have been hidden by indigenous people hiding their treasure from the Spanish.  It was also said pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake hid their treasure in the desert.

Hopeful miners or prospectors would follow the light of bird’s wings in the darkness.  If the Alicanto became aware of them it turned off the light losing its follower in the thick darkness.  If the follower was of bad character and not true of heart the bird would lead them over a cliff to death.  One legend tells how a Chilean Silver Rush was sparked on 16 May, 1832 when a miner named Juan Godoy followed an Alicanto to rich outcrop of the precious ore.  This event led to a rush to mine silver with many miners striking rich.

The Basan in Japanese Mythology and Folklore

In Japanese folklore and mythology the Basan is a chicken-like bird sometimes called Basabasa, or Inuhōō and also  known as the “Fire Rooster”.    It was said to have its home on the Japanese island of Shikoku in the mountains of Iyo Province which is now known as Ehime Prefecture.   According to old depictions it looks like a large chicken with a large, intensely red comb. It is said to breathe ghost-fire from its beak which is not hot but a cold fire that glows.

They made their homes in bamboo covered mountain recesses but were known to occasionally materialize late at night in human settlements.   The wings of the Basan are said to make a strange and unearthly rustling sound when flapped.  If a human inside a house hears this noise and looks outside to investigate they will just get a glimpse of the bird as it disappears before their eyes.

The Firebird in Slavic and Russian Folktales

In Russian and Slavic folklore the Firebird is a beautiful, magical bird that is much desired but has a reputation of being both an omen of doom and a blessing for those who manage to find one of its feathers, or capture it.  The Firebird is described in various ways but essentially as a bird with brilliant, glowing orange, red and yellow plumage giving it the appearance of fire, hence its name.  The feather continues to glow even when one is lost making it a valuable prize for the finder emitting enough light to fill a large room.   They are usually depicted in the form of a fiery bird of paradise of varying in size with the story and artist.   It is an extremely beautiful bird and although not usually regarded as particularly friendly is not aggressive, or vicious, but is associated with danger.  This is because of its role as a bringer of danger to whoever finds it and very often a bringer of doom to those who demand its capture.

The typical structure of a firebird story begins with the finding of a feather by the hero.  All though initially pleased with the find the hero eventually begins to see it as the cause of all of his troubles. This is followed by a bullying king or tsar ordering the hero to undertake one, or more, difficult and dangerous quests in search of something rare and valuable. The hero often has the assistance of a magical animal helper such as a horse or wolf who guides him throughout.  The final quest is usually for the Firebird which must be brought back alive to the tsar or king.  On the quest the hero has a number of adventures and wins the love of a beautiful princess.  On return with the Firebird the tsar or king dies and the hero becomes ruler and marries the beautiful princess obtaining his heart’s desire.  In many ways it is a rite of passage for the hero who grows in wisdom and maturity throughout until he becomes strong and able enough to become the ruler.

The Boobrie in Scottish Folklore

In the legends and folklore of the west coast of Scotland the Boobrie is a shapeshifting entity that usually appears in avian form.  It is also known to take on other forms such as that of a water horse or bull.  The Boobrie was said to make a deep bull-like bellowing call described as being similar to that of a common bittern though these are infrequent visitors to the region.   When it appears as a water horse it has the ability to gallop over the tops of lochs and rivers as if they were solid land.   It was also known to manifest as a huge vampire-like insect in summer that sucks the blood of horses.  However, its preferred form appears to be that of an oversized water bird such as a cormorant, great northern diver or the extinct flightless great auk.  Although considered mostly aquatic it was known to take to the land sometimes concealing itself in tall patches of heather.

The Boobrie is considered to be a voracious predator.  Otters are said to be its favorite food and although it eats these in great numbers it will raid ships carrying livestock having a liking for calves, lambs and sheep.  Of course this made it an enemy of the local island farmers of the area. One legend from the Isle of Mull tells how a farmer and his son were ploughing a field beside Loch Freisa.   They were using a team of four horses but ran into trouble when one lost a shoe and could not continue.  Looking round they saw an unknown horse grazing peacefully close by.   Wanting to get the ploughing finished they decided they would try the unknown horse in place of the one that lost its shoe.   Hitching it up along side the other three they were heartened to see the unknown horse seemed to take to the task with ease and their ploughing progressed well. 

The Anqa of Arabian Mythology

In Arabian mythology the Anqa is large, marvelous and mysterious female bird. It is said she flies far away only returning once in many ages but can be found at the place of the setting sun.  She is also known as Anka, Anqa Mughrib or Anqa al-Mughrib.   Mughrib, has several meanings such as “strange, foreign,” “distant” or “west sunset” signifying the mystery and fantastical attributes of the bird.

Zakariya al-Qazwini, in his book, “The Wonders of Creation” describes the Anqa as very beautiful with four pairs of wings, a long white neck. He claimed it possessed a small resemblance to every known living creature and they were related to birds that lived alone on Mount Qaf.   He also claimed they were wise gaining wisdom and experience through their lifespan of 1700 years and mates when it reaches the age of 500 and an egg is produced. When the chick hatches it will stay in the nest for 125 years before it leaves.  The Anqa is so large its diet consists of large fish and elephants and nothing else.

© 12/05/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 12th, 2021 zteve t evans

The Giant and the Geoglyphs of the The Atacama Desert, Chile

Atacama Desert – Image by Julian Hacker from Pixabay

The Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert (Desierto de Atacama) of Chile, South America, located between the Andes Mountains and the coastal Cordillera de la Costa mountain range is the oldest desert on the planet. However, with an average temperature of 18 C or 63 F it is not the hottest desert in the world but being sandwiched between two mountain ranges creates special atmospheric and weather conditions making it the driest non-polar desert in the world.  The desert landscape is dry and arid with an otherworldly appearance and has been used for simulations of future expeditions to Mars.  The driest part of the desert receives less that a millimeter of rain annually on average though rainstorms do occur on rare occasions which bring rapid but fleeting growths of wildflowers.

Geoglyphic Art

Although the Atacama is a desolate, inhospitable place today there is much evidence of ancient human presence.   There are more that 5,000 prehistoric works of art known as geoglyths that have been situated on or created from the landscape.  A geoglyph is a work of art or construction that is formed on the ground in parts of the landscape.  They are usually 4 meters or more in length and constructed of durable materials found in the locality such as stone, rocks, gravel or earth.  They are considered a type of ancient land art and in some cases rock art and are usually highly visible from a distance.  In some cases such as some of the famous Nasca lines of Peru they appear to have been constructed to be viewed from above though it is not certain that was intended.  The Nazca lines were built between 200-800 BC and about 800 kilometers distant.   However, the Atacama glyphs are believed to have been built between 600 and 1500 AD and although not thought to be as old are more numerous and with varied styles covering a much larger region.

It is believed both sets of geoglyphs had multiple symbolic and ritual purposes and communicated certain information to people who understood their symbolism.   The Atacama geoglyphs are thought to have played an important role in the transportation system and networks that connected the great civilizations of South America in pre-Hispanic times.  They were believed to have been built and improved upon by more than one early South American culture including The Tiwanaku and Inca Empires as well as other groups.  The geoglyphs are formed in many different shapes including human, animal and geometric in about fifty varying types.  Some of these works were placed or created in isolated sites while others appear in panels of figures up to fifty in number.   They are located throughout the Atacama Desert in valleys, or on pampas or hillsides and always close to pre-Hispanic paths or tracks which were the routes of the llama caravans through the arid and desolate landscape connecting the ancient people of the region.

Types and Forms of Geoglyphs

Image by SznegraCC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

There were three methods that have been identified that were used to create the geoglyphs.  One method was to scrape away the top layer of the landscape such as soil or sand revealing a contrasting color below.   Another way was to use rocks and stone and other materials to form shapes on the landscape.   They also used a combination of these two methods and sometimes paint to create other geoglyphs.

Geoglyphs in geometric shapes are the most numerous. There are many different types of these including rectangles, circles, concentric circles, arrows, crossed parallel lines, rhomboids and other shapes.  There are also zoomorphic figures especially llamas and alpacas, but also animals such as fox and monkeys, birds such as eagles, flamingos, and seagulls and fishes such as dolphins or sharks.   There are also depictions of amphibians such as lizards, snake and toads which were believed to represent ancient divinities associated with water.  One of the most often repeated depictions are of caravans of llamas with 3 or more ranks of up to 80 animals in lines.   Humans are also depicted engaged in activities such as fishing, hunting, religious ceremonies and sex.

Ancient Signposts

Luis Briones in his paper, “The geoglyphs of the north Chilean desert: an archaeological and artistic perspective”, published in the March 2006 issue of the journal Antiquity discussed the geoglyphs and came up with some interesting ideas. The real function and purpose of the geoglyphs may never be known but Briones believes they may have served several functions.   Their location along the trade routes through the Atacama seems to have been deliberate.  It may be they acted as signposts providing the travelers, who would know their meaning, with certain types of invaluable and useful information.

They may have served as pointers or landmarks perhaps indicating where water or fodder for animals may be found, or warning of difficulties in the landscape and indicating safe paths.   It may be that they are part of an early religion or cult which may have combined commercial traveling with religion.  Following such a path may have been a rite or ritual or perhaps an initiation or pilgrimage.   If they did contain information they may have been an early form of writing.  However, to read their meaning you would have to know what the shapes and the way they were set meant along with how punctuation and syntax was used.  Unfortunately, that knowledge is now lost, if it ever existed and we can only guess.

The trade routes would have been an important part of the economy for any civilization or culture.   The moving or essential items such as corn, potatoes, fish and other food as well as commodities such as turquoise, copper and cotton to distant markets helps bind civilizations and empires together.   Moreover, they transported news and perhaps orders or commands from the government centers.

The Atacama Giant

One of the most spectacular of these geoglyphs is known as the Atacama Giant, a large anthropomorphic figure set on the side of the hill of Cerro Unitas.  It is the largest known prehistoric anthropomorphic figure in the world being 390 ft (119 m) long and believed to depict a deity of a local population from 1000 – 1400 AD.   It was believed to be an early astronomical calendar that told those who knew how to read it important dates such as crop cycles and seasons in relation to how certain parts of it aligned with the moon.   Anything that might help predict rain or weather would be very useful in the dry, barren regions of the Atacama Desert.  

Hill figures are often thought to have been intended to view from some distance, suggesting the giant may have been strategically placed.  The giant has a stylized unnatural appearance made up of squares, rectangles and parallel lines at varying angles to create a geometric representation of a massive anthropomorphic figure.    It appears to be either wearing a headdress such as one made of feathers or had rays emanating with from its head or from behind it.    How the moon or other astronomical objects related to these lines was believe to give the season and times of the year. 

The Giant and the other geoglyphs provide evidence of the activities of humans in these inhospitable regions. There are many similar examples of such landscape art found all around the world including the Nasca lines, and the White Horse of Uffington and other English hill figures, the Blythe Intaglios of California USA and the Steppe Geoglyphs of Kazakhstan are but a few examples.

© 23/04/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 4th, 2021 zteve t evans

Chilote folklore: The ghost ship called El Caleuche

The Chiloé Archipelago is situated off the coast of Chile and the people who live on these islands are isolated from the mainland and are forced by circumstances to be independent and self-sufficient.  Their island society evolved and developed around the natural resources of their environment and being island folk  the sea is a big part of their lives.  

They evolved their own ways of explaining the world which grew into their own unique mythology and folklore and many of the stories revolve around the sea.  One of those stories tells how the sea is kept clear of the dead bodies of those who are drowned at sea who must sail for eternity on a ghostly ship the Chilote islanders call El Caleuche.

El Caleuche

This strange phantom ship is believed to be a living being that is always awake and on its guard against unwanted intruders.  It appears as a shining white ship  with  three masts  that carry five sails.  Read more

Supernatural beings in the Chilote mythology of Chile

The Chiloé Archipelago lies just off the southern coast of Chile. The islands are remote and isolated and over the centuries the people developed a unique mythology and many folk traditions that enriches their island culture. Their mythology tells of how the archipelago was believed to have been created and the deities that take care of the sea. They also have a number of supernatural creatures and entities that have evolved along with the mythology. The following examples give an insight into the rich culture that grew up among the island people.

The Basilisco chilote

The Basilisco chilote is a strange beast that has the body of a snake and the head of a cockerel. It is hatched from an egg that has been incubated by a cockerel. It is said that creature will slither under houses and dig a hole to create a lair. From there it draws the saliva, phlegm and moisture out of the bodies those who sleep there, causing their flesh to shrink and shrivel against their skeleton and death through dehydration. At all costs one must avoid looking into the eyes of the basilisco as its gaze turns humans to stone. It is best not to let Basilisco chilote hatch, but to kill one the egg must be burned immediately it is laid and the chicken that laid it must be killed to stop more eggs being laid. The only one way to be free of the Basilisco chilote once it has targeted a victim is to burn the house above its lair to ashes.  Read more

The Royal Family of the Sea in the Chilote mythology of Chile

The Royal Family of the Sea in Chilote Mythology

The people who live in the Chiloé Archipelago of southern Chile have developed their own unique mythology over the centuries which helps to explain their environment and its maintenance. Being islanders they rely upon the sea for much of their sustenance and they have evolved a hierarchy of divine figures who take care of the ocean. This hierarchy is made up of a Royal Family who consist of a king and queen, a prince and two princesses.

The Millalobo

Millalobo is the king of the seas and was said to have been born from a union by a beautiful woman with a sea lion during the epic battle between Tenten Vilu and Caicai Vilu that created the Chiloé Archipelago.

He had a human wife, Huenchula and they had a son, the Pincoy, the prince of the sea, and two daughters, the Sirena Chilota who was a type of mermaid and the Pincoya a sea nymph. The prince and the princesses helped their father and mother take care of the sea.  Read more

The Chilote mythology of Chile, South America

Chilote mythology

Chilote mythology is the mythology of the people who live on the Chiloé Archipelago lying near the coast of southern Chile. The biggest of the islands is Chiloé, which means “land of sea gulls” and pronounced, Chee-lo-way. Archaeologists believe the islands have been settled by humans for at least 5,000 years. The people of the Chiloé Archipelago are known as Chilotes and are the descendants of Huilliche and Choncho Indians and the main language spoken is now Spanish.

A unique mythology

Their lives and well being, in the past, present and the foreseeable future are inextricably linked to the sea. This dependence has seen the evolution of a unique mythology, folklore and traditions to help them explain and make sense of the world they live in. Naturally, for an island people, the sea plays a large part in this mythology, reflecting its importance to the people.

Spanish ships bring Christianity

Another important influence was the arrival of the Spanish from across the other side of the world in huge ships with masts and sails. The first sightings of these strange ships, perhaps sailing on the distant horizon and maybe stopping off at an island, must have had a profound effect on the native people. But in 1567 the Spanish stopped at the islands bringing with them from across the other side of the world, Christianity.  Read more