Sirenas, Anchanchos, Antawallas
16 Dec, 2013 | Finn O'Neill
Finn O’Neill listens in on the fleeting whispers of Bolivia’s oral literature tradition and encounters three recurring spirits.
The Sirena is a spirit native to Lake Titicaca, in particular Isla Suriqui, which appears as a normal Cholita dressed in vibrant, coloured clothes. An encounter with a sirena occurs at the threshold moments around dawn and dusk, when it is neither night nor day. The sirena, although not linked with the traditional Western mermaid, is neither from the lake nor the land. An inherently ambiguous figure, it is never clear whether encounters with her occur during dreaming or wakefulness. The sirena is perceived with fear and apprehension, not because they are seen as dangerous beings, but because the places which these sirenas can take one of their subjects —both physically and mentally— are unknown and can leave the ‘victim’ in a whirl of confusion following their encounter. Sirenas often appear in vacant areas. One must not venture to these places, especially during the evening, for fear of encountering a sirena and being taken on a mystical journey.
I am told of a man called Don Valentín Cáceres who encountered a group of sirenas one night on Isla Suriqui. Cáceres witnessed a group of them dancing in the night, playing music with guitars and zampoñas. Allured by the haze of serenity in front of his eyes, he joined them. Without his knowing Cáceres was taken by a sirena and placed amongst the group where he dreamt he was wearing a poncho and dancing with a sirena who was playing a pinquillo. The following morning Cáceres woke up on the beach drenched in seaweed instead of a poncho, while a stick lay next to him—what he thought had been the pinquillo.
Similarly to the Sirena, the Anchancho also appears during these uncertain periods of the day and in empty spaces. The Anchancho is often found in high formations such as mountains and cliff edges, and it appears as a small, rotund and playful man. The Quechuan word ‘sajra’, meaning ‘evil’, is often associated with the Anchancho. This imp-like figure is playful in its nature and has a tendency to play tricks on its subject.
It is said that the echo one hears in the mountains is in fact the reply of the Anchancho, and should be taken as a warning of its presence. As a result it is important not to play with the echo; not to keep calling out to the Anchancho as this can provoke it and lead it to want to play with your mind.
This perception of the echo is not dissimilar to the Greek myth of Echo, a nymph who lived in the woods and fell in love with a young man called Narcissus. Echo would always have the last word in their exchanges and this drove Narcissus mad, leading him to him flee from her. Echo died having never experienced love and has ever since continued repeating what other people say. The Anchancho shares many characteristics with Echo, yet its appearance goes beyond the sound itself and has a physical dimension. An encounter with the Anchancho can leave the person very confused and as a result it is best to stay clear from the highlands during twilight and dawn.
The Antawalla is also a nocturnal spirit which has the ability to take on a number of different appearances such as a bird, a snake, and a cat.
The Lari Lari Felino is the most common embodiment of the Antawalla near Lake Titicaca, where it is feared due to its power .The Lari Lari Felino appears as the face of a cat which is on fire. Its vivid flames make it stand out as it appears high up in the trees against the dark foliage.
Unlike the Sirena and the Anchancho, the Lari Lari has the ability of appearing out of nowhere; someone may be standing near the woods during the evening and the Lari Lari Felino can suddenly appear. The spirit sweeps down from the trees and goes through the body of the person. The Lari Lari can actually burn its subject, leaving traces of its impact.
The Lari Lari often targets people who have lied or been rude to others, and attacks them as they are walking alone during the evening. However, everyone must take caution when walking at night around Lake Titicaca and the surrounding islands.
An encounter with the Lari Lari Felino leaves the person gravely ill. There is no known cure to the illness which is inflicted upon them, and the ‘victim’ of the Lari Lari eventually dies.