Bertha Koessler-Ilg and Her Mapuche Indian Tales

“CUENTA EL PUEBLO MAPUCHE”

(The Mapuche people tell tales)

by Bertha Koessler née Ilg

Published by Mare Nostrum Ltda., Santiago – Chile, 2006

Edited by Rolf Foerster González

Translated by Lieselotte Schwarzenberg M., Ph.D.

ISBN, complete edition: 978-84-96391-10-9

ISBN, first volume: 978-84-96391-11-6

Printed in Chile

Although the translation of these books from German into Spanish had been requested and completed a few years earlier, the new edition of Mapuche tales, collected during long years of patient work by Bertha Koessler née Ilg in San Martín de Los Andes, Argentina, was finally launched in May 2007 in Santiago, Chile.

Bertha Koessler was German and born in 1881 at Obernzell, Bavaria. As a young girl she spent some time on the Island of Malta, where an uncle of hers was German consul. There she searched after folkloric and traditional traits of that island’s original people. Later, after studying and graduating as a nurse in Germany, she married the young physician Rudolf Koessler. Together they emigrated to Argentina and lived for some years in Buenos Aires, working at the city’s German Hospital. However, their spirit of adventure had not been satisfied as yet; thus, after being informed that there existed a small town named San Martín de los Andes in the Argentine Patagonia, far away and undeveloped, where there was no doctor, they decided to visit the place and finally settled there for good. Here they raised their family, and Bertha shared her time between her tasks as a mother and housewife and as her husband’s assistant. But she also dedicated much time to collect old tales of the region’s indigenous population, of which many came to see the doctor, and this was an endeavor she very much enjoyed. With some of these Mapuche Indians she was able to hold long conversations and little by little won their trust so that finally they became her friends.

She tells us that she usually had to make great efforts to overcome the Indians’ natural shyness and reluctance to reveal anything of their Mapuche background, because that was thought to be against the commandments of their deities. However, slowly and patiently Frau Bertha was able to win their confidence while learning their language, the Mapudungun. She must have mastered the tongue very well as becomes evident from the German explanations she adds to each Mapudungun term. In the evenings, after having listened attentively to the stories the Mapuche Indians told her, she sat down and carefully recorded them in German, inserting original Mapudungun expressions followed by the German translations of their meaning.

Although Frau Bertha spoke seven languages, including Arabian and Mapudungun, German was her native tongue and it is not only logical that she preferred to express her thoughts in this language, but it was also the correct procedure, as we translators very well know.

The collection of her manuscripts is very extensive and includes not only tales as such, but also a complete research of the indigenous culture with poems, songs, prayers, magical practices, riddles, children’s games, traditions and even a glossary of the Mapudungun language. This first part of her work was published in 1962 by the Instituto de Filología de la Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias de la Educación of the Universidad Nacional de La Plata in Buenos Aires and now has been reprinted without changes. However, her collection of Mapuche myths and legends, tales and fables had not been published at all, possibly due to the fact that they were all written in German. In spite of Frau Berta’s great efforts to find persons or a publishing company who would show interest for the subject, compile and publish her work, she did not succeed. Thus, many years went by, and the valuable collection stayed unpublished.

At her time the Mapudungun language was not generally considered as important as, for instance, the Quechua or the Guaraní, which have been conserved and spoken by the natives of Perú and Bolivia and of Paraguay even after the Spanish conquest and colonial times, until today. At present that concept has changed in favor of the Mapudungun thanks to important studies undertaken by some Catholic priests, mainly Father Ernesto Wilhelm Moesbach, who lived and worked in the Chilean Araucanía region and published glossaries of the Mapudungun language (Voz de Arauco, first edition July 1944. Registration number 10492, printed in Padre Las Casas, Chile).

The Koessler family wanted to meet Frau Bertha’s wish to compile all of their grandmother’s tales and publish them in Spanish, even more so after Bertha Koessler died in 1965 without having been able to accomplish her goal. In Chile, the anthropologist Rolf Foerster and Juan Arribas, Director of the Spanish publisher Mare Nostrum, in addition to other personalities, undertook the task and thus, after many years and hindrances, Bertha Koessler’s tales collection landed on my desk with the request to translate them into Spanish. They make up for two more volumes.

Although some subjects, especially those referring to Mapuche uses and beliefs, are repeated along the large amount of tales, it is enormously interesting to study these peoples’ idiosyncrasy. Many times appear the so called “machis” (medicine women) and sorcerers who kept the people in a state of fright through their witchcraft and curses, wherewith they could persecute those who didn’t obey their orders. They used to kidnap young girls and submit them to cruel slavery; their power could not be thwarted and, therefore, nobody dared to challenge them. Until one day a young hero appears who confronts and vanquishes the monster, usually in great and dangerous adventures. Here we see a certain similarity with some European tales like, for instance, those of the German Grimm brothers or the Spanish knight novels.

There also are stories about natural cataclysms and they even tell of a long period of rains and darkness suffered by the Indians, that had been imposed on them by one of their deities. This reminds us of the biblical Flood. The most dangerous of those gods and who is mentioned very frequently was the Pillán, who was supposed to live on the Villarrica volcano. He used to unshackle terrible storms and destroyed mountains, forests, rivers and everything he found at hand in his fury. In Chile we do know such natural catastrophes like earthquakes, floods, etc. Thus, the Mapuche tales reflect the geographic, meteorological and seismic reality of this part of the South American subcontinent.

Among the reports there also are historical episodes as, for instance, the exodus of a large Mapuche tribe that emigrated to the other side of the mountains, that is, to Chile, of which they spoke as a land of shadows and darkness, where water abounds and one suffers of cold and bad climate conditions. Later on, these folks returned to their original homeland in Argentina, where their fellows gave them some land so they could live again in their natural environment and according to their ancient custom. They also tell about wars among different tribes, that used to be very cruel and bloody and always ended by the winner abducting the women and taking all goods of the defeated. Some stories tell about the Spanish invasion and the mistrust felt by the Indians against those warriors who could shoot instead of fighting with arrows, “bolas” or else, hand to hand. They refer to the powerful “Winka” (white man) king who lived at the other side of the “great pond”, meaning the ocean, and who sent his soldiers to conquer new lands for him. However, they say that this king was kind and just, but that his armies committed all kinds of abuses against the Indians, openly violating the rules that their king had instructed them to follow. This is a very remarkable feature.

Also present are tales about life after death, about the dead and their transcendent life. Living persons use to communicate with the deceased, and the latter come out of the lakes, on whose ground they go on existing. From there they return to visit their relatives and haunt their old homes. Sometimes they take a loved one along with them into the deep waters, after which the end of the stories might be a temporary return to earth or the definitive disappearance of the hero or the heroine.

The translation itself was a long and laborious endeavor, not lacking of difficulties due mainly to the purpose of reproducing as best as possible the simple, almost primitive language used by the Mapuches and that Bertha Koessler succeeded so well to imitate in German. She uses many Mapudungun words, after which she immediately adds their meaning in German, therewith clarifying quite accurately what the Mapuche relator wants to express. However, it is not easy to reproduce in Spanish the Mapuche way of talking. For this reason the Spanish publisher found it necessary to edit the entire primary translation text so as to make it more fluent, although thereby much of the faithfulness of the original expression was lost. This was an inevitable cost that had to be assumed for literary reasons.

The publication of Bertha Koessler’s magnificent work is a great achievement. It is worthwhile to note that, after so many years of frustration for the author because she couldn’t find a publisher, finally her work was published in Chile and not in Argentina, where she lived and loved. However, it must be considered that the Mapuche people are much more numerous in our country than in Argentina, from where they originally came.

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