On this latest adventure I’ve told a suitcase full of stories from around the world including a couple of Brazilian tales I’ve had in my repertoire for ages: Sambele, the story of a very cheeky monkey and The Wings of a Butterfly, about a young girl who lives in the Amazonian rain forest who transforms into a butterfly before becoming a woman. Sambele is well known in Brazil but no-one in the Brazilian schools knew the second tale. In fact it’s quite common for me to share tales that are indigenous to the host country and few, if any in the audience have heard or read the tale before.
Being the story detective I am, I always make a point of finding out about some of the favorite and well known stories of the people and places I visit. And so, for your delectation and bemusement, I present to you a cast of curious characters from the imaginations of the past and present peoples of Brazil.
Saci Pererê, usually referred to as Saci, is probably the most enduring character in Brazilian mythology; there’s even a Saci appreciation society, and some Brazilians call Halloween Sacilloween or Saci Day instead. Every Brazilian child knows that Saci is a one-legged black boy who smokes a pipe and wears a red cap that gives him magical powers, but his origin is uncertain — he’s most likely a combined product of indigenous and Afro-Brazilian lore. Descriptions of his powers and behavior also vary; he may be able to appear or disappear at will, sometimes materializing in a cloud of smoke, or to create and move around in whirlwinds.
The more kid-friendly versions of the Saci legend describe him as a mischievous but entirely benign character who likes to play tricks, but there are some more sinister versions in which he takes great pleasure in frightening and tormenting people — usually hapless travelers lost in the woods. It’s also said that he rides across the countryside on horseback on full-moon nights, and that it’s possible to trap him in a bottle and even domesticate him, because when his red cap is taken away, all his powers go with it.
Boto Cor de Rosa
According to the legend, a pink dolphin comes out of the Amazon river at night during Festas Juninas (June Festivities). With its special power, it becomes a handsome, tall, strong, young man dressed in white clothes. He wears a white hat to cover the blow hole that remains in the top of his head. He is a very charming and seductive man who dances well and goes to parties in search of beautiful, unaccompanied, young women. He invites the ladies for a walk around the river bank where they make love and he usually gets them pregnant. The next morning he slips back into the river and turns into a pink dolphin again.
Even today, in the north of Brazil, babies born out of wedlock or without a known father are called the children of the pink dolphin.
(Thank you to Caio Henrique Gomes da Silva for bringing this character to my attention.)
The Curupira is one of the most fantastic and popular creatures produced by Brazilian folklore. Its appearance varies from region to region but is usually three feet tall, with a hairy body fire-red hair on its head. Its teeth are blue or green,it has big pointed ears and its feet are turned backwards: the heels are in front and the toes are at the back. He’s a forest being that protects trees and animals and is often seen riding on a collared peccary. If you hear thudding sounds in the woods, you can be sure they are the Curupira knocking the tree trunks to learn if the trees are healthy or sick. This guardian of the forest punishes those who damage trees and hunt more than they can eat. With whistles, noises, and false tracks, it makes those who destroy nature become lost in the woods.
Curupira is a product of the indigenous imagination; in 1560, José de Anchieta, a Jesuit educator who had a soft spot for native peoples, wrote in a letter:
It is known, and by everyone’s mouths, that there are certain demons that the brasis [his term for native Brazilians] name Curupiras, that often haunt Indians in the woods and lash, hurt and kill them. Some of our brothers give testimony of this, having seen those killed by it. That’s why Indians have the custom of leaving bird feathers, fans, arrows and other similar things, as a kind of offering, on the top of the highest hills when threading certain trails that lead, through rough paths, to the heart of those lands. They ask curupiras with fervor that no harm is done to them.
Cuca is sort of a Brazilian take on the bogeyman — or rather, bogeywoman. She started out as Coco, an Iberian ghoul that would supposedly devour misbehaving children; in Portugal the character morphed into a female figure, Coca, over the years. In Brazil she became Cuca, and while by some accounts she’s a hideous old hag, most often she’s described as a witch with long blond hair and an alligator-like body — and yes, she still takes away kids who behave badly.
The Kibungo is the frequent protagonist of many tales of oral literature in Bahia state, located in the Northeast of Brazil.
This character is bad, always hungry, treacherous and cowardly.
This ogre has an opening in the middle of his back. The opening gets bigger when he bends his head forward and closes when he raises his head again. His stomach is there, and it is there he puts children and women, which he swallows without eating. Victims can be rescued through this hole as the Kibungo can be killed by stabbing, shooting or severe beating.
The Kibungo stories were brought to Brazil by the Bantu slaves.
But to end on a slightly lighter note I leave you with
Not sure if this character is male, female or trans, but it wanders through the murities gathering fruit to eat. If someone else takes too many fruits, Wuwuru tickles them to death.
Murity groves are found in low areas of dry land. During February and March the ripe fruit fall to ground and these attract animals like tapirs, peccaries, deer, wild pigs, agoutis, quitipurus, spotted cavies, armadillos and monkeys. Birds such as curassows, toucans, tinamous and macaws also enjoy these delicious delights.
On this trip I had the good fortune to be invited to share tales at The British College of Brazil, St.Francis College and Graded School.
That’s it for now folks. My next foray in foreign lands will be to China and Malaysia in April and to Mexico in October.