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South American Mythology 101: The Ultimate Guide

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Welcome to this guide on South American Mythology! Are you curious about the myths and legends of South America? Do you want to learn more about the powerful gods and goddesses that have been revered by the indigenous people of this region for thousands of years? 

If so, then this guide is for you!

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the fascinating world of South American mythology. 

We’ll explore some of the most well-known myths and legends from this region, as well as the central themes and motifs that are common in South American mythology.

Whether you’re a student of mythology or just someone who is interested in learning more about the rich cultural heritage of South America, this guide will provide you with a comprehensive overview of the mythology of this fascinating region. 

So let’s dive in and learn more about South American mythology!

And don’t forget to check out my article on World Mythology, the ultimate guide to all major mythologies throughout the world.

What is South American Mythology?

South American mythology refers to the collection of myths and legends from the indigenous people of South America.

These myths and legends often revolve around creation stories, explanations for natural phenomena, and the deeds of powerful gods and goddesses.

It is a rich and diverse collection of stories and legends that provide insight into the beliefs and values of the indigenous people of South America. 

These myths and legends continue to be an important part of South American culture and are often passed down from generation to generation.

Types of South American Myths

While Incan mythology tends to be the most documented and well known, there are actually myths from multiple indigenous groups throughout South America. Some of these include:

  • Inca: The Inca civilization was centered in the Andes mountains in South America, and their religion and mythology revolved around sun worship, which was closely linked to ancestor worship. Many of their myths focus on their origins and their culture, and were used to reinforce their belief in their own superiority.
  • Chana: Chaná mythology is a set of stories and beliefs about the world held by the Chaná people. It includes a creation myth involving a god named Tijuiném, who was tasked with populating the earth and giving language and social rules to the Chaná people. Their mythology also includes mythical creatures and stories about the origins of animals and plants.
  • Chilote: The Chiloté mythology is a mix of Indigenous and Spanish elements, with a focus on the importance of the sea in the lives of the people living on the Chiloté Archipelago. Central to their mythology is the story of the sea serpents Caicai Vilu and Tenten Vilu, and most of the mythological beings in their stories are said to live in the sea.
  • Guarani: The Tupi-Guarani mythology is the set of stories and beliefs about the gods and spirits of the Tupi-Guarani people, who live in parts of South America. These narratives, along with the stories of their creation and rituals, form part of their religion.
  • Mapuche: The Mapuche Mythology is an oral tradition passed down through generations, incorporating elements from Argentinian and Chilean folklore. It tells of the creation of the world and the gods and spirits that inhabit it, with a focus on cosmology and the belief that spirits coexist with humans in the natural world.
  • Muisca: The Muisca Mythology includes a wide variety of legendary creatures, and the legend of El Dorado has its origins in this mythology. This legend has evolved over time, starting as a story of a mythical tribal chief who covered himself with gold dust and submerged in a lake, then becoming a legend of a lost golden city, country, and empire. This demonstrates how stories can change and take on a life of their own over time and tellings.
  • Selk’nam: Selk’nam mythology is the body of myths of the Selk’nam and Haush people of Tierra del Fuego, and is known primarily from the works of two ethnologists. In their mythology, the cosmos is divided into four skies that represent the four cardinal directions and are associated with different seasons.
  • Aymara: The Aymara people are an indigenous group in South America, and many of them practice a syncretic form of Catholicism mixed with native beliefs. In their mythology, llamas are important beings and are said to be responsible for the creation of rain. In their eschatology, llamas will return to their watery origins at the end of time.

Prominent South American Myths

South American mythology is rich and varied, and includes many stories about the gods and goddesses who ruled over. Some of the most well-known tales include:

  • The Creation Myth: According to this myth, the world was created by the creator god Viracocha, who emerged from the depths of the sea and brought forth the earth and all its inhabitants. He created the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the plants and animals that lived on the earth. He then created the first two humans, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, and gave them a golden staff. 
  • Incan Foundation Myth: One such legend tells of the mythical city of Cusco, which was said to be the center of the world and the birthplace of the Inca people. According to the legend, the creator god Viracocha emerged from Lake Titicaca and created the first two Inca rulers, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo. 
  • The Great Flood: According to Inca mythology, a great flood occurred in ancient times because people were wicked and unruly. Only two shepherd brothers and their families were warned by their llamas and survived in high caves. After the flood, the sun god Inti reappeared and the survivors repopulated the earth, while the llamas stayed in the highlands to remember the flood.
  • The Sun and Moon: Many South American myths feature the sun and moon, which are often transformed humans who become the celestial bodies in the sky. One common myth is the “twins and the jaguar” story, in which twins avenge their mother’s death by killing jaguars and ascending to the sky to become the sun and moon. Different tribes have their own variations of the story, including some that do not include the twins. Another legend tells of a woman who is seduced by a tapir and follows him to the edge of the earth, where she is transformed into the Pleiades and her husband, who follows her, becomes Orion.

South American Mythology Characters

Next, here are some of the most significant characters to feature in South American mythology:

  • Inti: The most important god in the Inca pantheon, Inti was the god of the sun and warmth. He was often depicted with a golden face and rays emanating from his head.
  • Pacha Mama: The goddess of the earth, Pacha Mama was revered as the giver of life and the provider of sustenance. She was often invoked for fertility and abundance.
  • Viracocha: The creator god in many Andean cultures, Viracocha was said to have created the world and all its inhabitants. 
  • Mama Quilla: The goddess of the moon in the Inca pantheon, Mama Quilla was the sister of Inti, the sun god. She was associated with marriage and was often invoked for fertility and protection.
  • Pachacamac: Pachacamac was a creator deity worshipped by the pre-Inca maritime population of Peru and also the name of a pilgrimage site in the Lurín Valley dedicated to the god. After the Incas conquered the coast, they incorporated him into their pantheon. He was believed to be a god of fire, a son of the sun god, and a rejuvenator of the world. 
  • Apocatequil: The god of lightning in the Inca pantheon, Apocatequil was often depicted as a young man with wings and a crown of lightning bolts. He was associated with thunder and storms.

South American Mythology Sources

There are not many direct sources for Incan or South American Mythology, so most of what we have comes from scholarly texts, including the following:

  • The Royal Commentaries of the Inca: Much of what we know about Inca mythology comes from the writings of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, who wrote The Royal Commentaries of the Inca and learned the Inca legends from his uncles who were members of the nobility. European and Christian influences may have affected his accounts, but they still provide a window into the Inca world.
  • The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie: This book, written by a modern historian, provides a comprehensive overview of the Inca civilization and its mythology. It includes extensive research and analysis of the various sources of Incan mythology, and offers a modern perspective on the stories and legends of the Incas.
  • The Mythology of South America by Jon Bierhorst: John Bierhorst examines the mythology of South America and divides the continent into seven regions. He explores the unique oral traditions of each region, including the myths of the Incas and the Brazilian tricksters Sun and Moon. The book includes illustrations of native artwork and chapters on special topics, such as the connections between myths and politics. Bierhorst has updated the text to include new information and written a new afterword.
  • From Viracocha to the Virgin of Copacabana by Verónica Salles-Reese: This book is an interdisciplinary study of how the myths of the Andean people regarding Lake Titicaca evolved from pre-Inca times to the enthronement of the Virgin of Copacabana in 1583. The study shows how the Inca attempted to reconcile their myths with those of the Kolla people and how a similar pattern occurred when the Inca were conquered by the Spanish. 
  • Incan Myths by Gary Urton: Inca Myths is a book that provides an introduction to the land and people of the Andes and discusses the sources of current knowledge of Inca mythology. The book includes various creation myths, including those from different ethnic groups and regions, and examines the relationship between myth and history. 

South American Mythology Creatures

There are a lot of mythical creatures that come from South America. Here are a few:

  • Gualichu: Gualichu was a feared but not worshipped being blamed for all diseases, calamities, and evil happenings. He could enter people’s bodies and objects and had to be exorcised. The term also applied to evil spells and charms, and the word has survived in the local folklore of Chile, Argentina, south Brazil, and Uruguay.
  • La Bolefuego: La Bolefuego or Candileja is a character from Colombian and Venezuelan folklore who is said to be the spirit of a woman who was burned alive with her children and attacks travelers. It is described as a flashing lantern and is said to be attracted by prayers.
  • Colo Colo: The Colo Colo is an evil rat-like creature from Mapuche mythology that is sometimes described as a feathered rat, sometimes as a snake or lizard with a rat’s head, and sometimes just as a large rat.
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Jason is a Mythic Fantasy Author and creator of MythBank. He loves mythology, history, and geek culture. When he's not writing, his favorite hobbies include hiking, chilling with his wife, spouting nonsense words at his baby daughter, and developing this (and other) websites.

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