Chiloé Island - Places: A witch’s Travel Guide

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Chiloé Island
Places: A witch’s Travel Guide

Chiloé Island, located 500 miles south of Santiago off Chile’s Pacific coast, is culturally very different from the rest of Chile and perhaps from anywhere else on Earth. A unique culture has developed on this small archipelago of islands at the world’s end, accessible by an approximately 45-minute ferry crossing from the mainland. The seas around Chiloé are stormy, rough, and dangerous, thus until recently the trip was avoided unless necessary.

Chiloé, known as the “Enchanted Island,” is famed for its old wooden churches and because legend claimed that it was once inhabited and ruled by witches. People used to avoid Chiloé for fear of witchcraft; now its magical aura is a draw for tourists.

Originally inhabited by the Mapuche, an indigenous people of Chile and Argentina, the Spanish landed here in 1553 and occupied the island until 1567. Jesuits built the wooden churches around the island’s perimeter so that missionaries from Peru could “visit.” This was optimistic: in fact, priests rarely visited Chiloé due to a combination of political turmoil, armed resistance from the Mapuche, reluctance to navigate the stormy seas, and, not least, Chiloé’s location at what seems the end of Earth.

A Spanish population was settled on the island and left to “civilize” the Mapuche. After a violent earthquake in 1646, these settlers begged permission to leave the island, but their request was denied by the Jesuit authorities who insisted they stay among the Mapuche.

The Spanish and Mapuche populations were left together in isolation; to the fascination of scholars, historians, and anthropologists, the Chilotes, as the local population is called, developed a very unique occult folklore. It is unclear how much of this folklore is indigenous to the island, how much was imported by the Spanish settlers, and how much is the result of a merger of the two cultures.

Old, persistent rumors suggest that Chiloé is ruled by a secret cabal of powerful witches. Attitudes toward the witches are somewhat ambiguous; on the one hand, there is an ancient indigenous goddess tradition on Chiloé. Witches serve as priestesses of this ocean goddess, Pincoya, and mediate with her to provide safety and prosperity for islanders. Allegedly, merchants who make contracts with the witches prosper, too. However, much of Chiloé’s witch lore is exceedingly negative and would not be out of place amongst the fantasies of Europe’s most virulent witch-hunters. Legends depict local witches as grotesque in the absolute most negative sense of that word. (See page 661, Grotto.)

Chiloé’s witches fly and shape-shift. They can raise or lower the sea level at will. They control the tides. Witches plot and scheme and cause death, disaster, illness and assorted mayhem, mischief, and mishaps.

Chiloé is allegedly home to a unique type of witch known locally as La Voladora or “the flying woman.” No broomsticks for La Voladora; instead she transforms into a bird. In order to fly, La Voladora must lighten her body so that it functions like a bird’s: to accomplish this, she vomits up her intestines into a zapa, a wooden pan, which is then hidden in the forest. (Alternately she vomits into an empty mollusk shell.) She then transforms into a bird and takes flight.

The witch’s flight must be concluded by dawn. La Voladora must return to her intestines and swallow them again before the first rays of sunrise if she ever hopes to regain her human nature. Should she be unable to reach her intestines in time, or should someone hide them, La Voladora must fly ceaselessly for a year and then die.

Another version of the legend of La Voladora suggests that she doesn’t really fly: the witch merely lies on the ground while making flying motions. No, it’s not a shamanic soul-journey: instead, while she’s going through the motions, the devil flies in her place. (An even less pleasant alternative suggests that witches create special jackets from the flayed skins of virgins, enabling them to fly.)

The witches’ other methods of travel may be preferable:

Image Caballo Marino (the sea horse) is a horse with a golden mane. It is so large that it can comfortably carry 13 witches at a time. All a witch has to do is whistle for it and Caballo Marino comes; slap it on the rear and it departs.

Image The witches also possess a ghost ship, which rides over or under water like a magical submarine.

The witches’ headquarters are maintained in a cave, rumored to be in Quecavi, a village on the eastern side of the island. (Other legends suggest that rumors of witches’ caves kept nosy neighbors from exploring smugglers’ stashes.) The cave is guarded by the Imbauche or Invunche, the witches’ sentry. Witches allegedly kidnap babies, preferably first-born males, whom they then deform hideously, breaking the baby’s right foot and then binding it to the left shoulder so that the baby can never escape. (This mimics the way witches were often bound during European witch-trial ordeals.) The Imbauche is entirely dependent on the witches for sustenance; in exchange, he is forced to guard their caves.