september 2010

Superstitions in South America

Superstition is a belief, not based upon reason, knowledge, or experience.

Floriane Guyot
Projects Abroad
Nantes - France

The etymology is from the classical Latin "superstition", literally "a standing over", hence: "amazement, wonder, dread, especially of the divine or supernatural".

South American children, like all children over the world, were born and raised in a context in which houl and ghost tales are transmitted, able to measure up to the cruel tales of the brothers Grimm andCharles Perrault. In tales coming from oral tradition, life and death have varied interpretations; one of them, of both pagan and Christian character, is the popular belief that the soul – or spirit – survives death and after the Last Judgment, some will enjoy the happiness of Heaven and other will suffer from the tortures between the flames of Hell.

In ancestral South American cultures, from before the Christian Age, it was believed that the soul is something intangible which can stay alive, in form of ghost or spirit, after the decease of the body. Once the person is dead, its soul becomes a bright star which goes to the sky or, once damned to roam as a lost soul, goes back to the kingdom of living beings to avenge offences, to press defaulters for payments, to punish the unbelievers and frighten the more gullible. These characters of double life, protected by the obscurity, appear in shafts, desolate places, and deserted houses, and their presence is almost always announced by the flapping of the wings of a nocturnal butterfly, the thunderclap of lightning, the creaking of the wood, the crackling of the fire or the puff of the wind. The deceased persons appear in the form of light when there are souls of Purgatory and in the form of a black shape or a grotesque man if they are damned souls.

In tales coming from oral tradition, life and death have varied interpretations

From before the conquest, fright and ghost tales, deep-rooted in the popular belief, have been spread from generation to generation. There is a reason the European tradition of witches, elfs, and ghosts mixed with the indigenous and African of water spirit, forests and mountains. There are beliefs of women who fly in boats painted on walls, like the "Tatuana" in Central America or " la Mulata de Córdova” in México; small elves who make beautiful girls fall in love with them by singing them verses, like the "Sombrerón" in Guatemala; spirits that defend nature and brutally punish anyone who damage it, like the "Marimonda" in Colombia or "el Coipora" in Brasil; damned boats which navigate without ever finding harbours, like "el Caleuche" in Chile or "el barco negro" in Nicaragua; and there are demonic women who seduce men who walk far from their houses. They are beautiful, attractive and strange women. When men kiss them, they scare them with their skull face.

In Cochabamba, there are many myths and legends about apparitions of ghosts which are transmitted from generation to generation. Some of them have become very famous, others have been forgotten. One of the most famous myths in Cochabamba is about "the ghost of Melgarejo" a former presidents of Bolivia. His skull is in the province of Tarata. The spirit of Melgarejo is summoned during spiritualist sessions and when he appears a horrible stench comes with him. Another myth is about the black widow. There are different versions about this story, but all agree that she is a beautiful woman with a slender body who appears to taxi drivers who work until late night. She asks them to take her to the cemetery, when she gets out of the car the coins she pays with become bloody fingers.

Ghost stories are widespread. Most people claim that apparitions are mainly in places where people died violently and their souls do not rest, instead they wonder and appear in these places. There are people who believe in the apparition of ghosts because of the experiences they have had. Others believe they are gossip or inventions to frighten people and to keep children obedient to their parents. It is difficult not to find someone who has already experienced a paranormal situation here, like shaking walls, devices which turned on or off alone, feeling of being grabbed by something, weird light or shadows...some places are also said to be haunted.

Ghost tales in the Andean oral tradition show that the popular imagery is able to create personages and situations which do not have anything to envy of the writers of European oral tradition, among them the brothers Grimm in Germany and Charles Perrault in France. Central and South American tales of the supernatural share many common themes with their European counterparts but stand well on their own. Believing in these superstitions or not, all are part of a rich culture that it is important to conserve.

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Everything began fifteen years ago. September 2, 1995, seven young people got together to create association. Their purpose was to watch over the rights of animals and improve their quality of life: ADDA (Asociación para la Defensa de los Derechos de los Animales) was born. In the following years many people joined them, sharing the same unconditional love for animals and the desire to improve their way of life.

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