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The tear-shaped island of Chiloe sits in a 20-minute ferry ride off Chile's southwest coast. It was the last stronghold of the Spanish conquistadors in the region. Over the centuries, the beliefs, superstitions and legends brought from colonial Spain mixed with those of the indigenous inhabitants. As NPR's Julie McCarthy discovered on a recent visit, myth and magic still infuse the island.

JULIE MCCARTHY: As a setting for supernatural spirits, witches and warlocks, Chiloe lacks for nothing. The atmosphere crackles like vermilion embers on a dark, stormy day.

(Soundbite of fire crackling)

MCCARTHY: An appendage of the Andes, Chiloe's archipelago was formed from the debris of the mountains and lava from the ring of volcanoes that cluster here near the bottom of the world. Mist obscures the snowy peaks just across the channel. Even Chiloe's charming stilt houses with their pastel-painted frames can't lift the gloom this time of year. The green hills wear an Irish melancholy. Even the music, marked by some 30 folk festivals each summer, has a Celtic tinge.

(Soundbite of music)

MCCARTHY: Charles Darwin ventured to Chiloe, and recorded the strange phenomenon of a rainbow that morphed from an ordinary semicircle into a complete circle.

(Soundbite of reading from Darwin's "The Voyage of the Beagle")

Unidentified Narrator: An ominous, sublime scene. A band of prismatic colors close to the vessel's side, forming a distorted, but very nearly entire, ring.

MCCARTHY: Darwin made observations about the islanders, some of whom can be seen still bundled in Chiloe's rough-hewn wool.

(Soundbite of reading from Darwin's "The Voyage of the Beagle")

Unidentified Narrator: They are a humble, quiet, industrious set of men. The staple food: pigs, potatoes and fish. Although with plenty to eat, the people are very poor, and the lower orders cannot scrape together money sufficient to purchase even the smallest luxuries.

MCCARTHY: Accessible only by ferry...

(Soundbite of water lapping)

MCCARTHY: Chiloe has for centuries eked out its existence from the sea, with the delicious fish stews to show for it. As modernity creeps in, salmon farms flicker offshore in the round-the-clock industry. But through the ages, the Mapuche Indians trapped fish and gathered sea urchins here, honoring the sea goddess La Pincoya, one of their most ancient mythical creatures, says author of "Myths and Legends of Chiloe," Jorge Negron Vera. ..TEXT: Mr. JORGE NEGRON VERA (Author, "Myths and Legends of Chiloe"): (Spanish spoken) ..TEXT: MCCARTHY: If Pincoya appears to fisherman facing the sea, their catch will be abundant. If her back is to the sea, he says, the fish will be few. Huenchula is the legend of a girl who falls in love with the king of the sea. She might be one of the earliest environmentalists, says Negron.

Mr. NEGRON VERA: (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: The legend of Huenchula lays down a number of rules about how to extract shellfish from the sea, he says. Take them out by hand. Don't fight over them. Don't use wheel-barrels to extract them. Use only what you need, goes the legend. Other less benevolent beings snatch children and force them into servitude. All of it fodder for popular culture.

(Soundbite of music)

MCCARTHY: But in this remote spot where volcanoes rumble to life and earthquakes rock the foundations, stories about the supernatural could be expected. Twenty-six-year-old Cesar Ricardo Reyes says matter-of-factly that he and his friends have seen curious flashes of light in the night sky, and he does not think that they are volcanic emissions from across the channel.

Mr. CESAR RICARDO REYES (Chiloe Resident): (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: Our families said it was probably warlocks. The lights were small and had a large variation in the elevation and speed, he says, adding it was over too great a height for it to have been someone with a flashlight out in the woods. In Chiloe, it's not female witches but male warlocks who rule. Not surprisingly, says retired professor and researcher of popular tradition Constantino Contreras Oyarzun.

Professor CONSTANTINO CONTRERAS OYARZUN (Researcher): (Through Translator) It has to do with the strong machismo of Chilote society, even today. That could account for the conversion of witches from European culture into warlocks here.

MCCARTHY: Locals say, if you throw wheat chaff on the fire, a warlock will betray himself by coughing. If he's flying and you say his name, he'll fall. And some Chilotes also believe warlocks can actually change form into a dog or a bird. ..TEXT: (Soundbite of bird squawking)

MCCARTHY: In the soft glow of twilight, Jorge Negron's bulbous nose and sad eyes lend him a gnomish look as he recalls the night a hunchbacked heron flew across the bow of his boat, shrieking.

Mr. NEGRON VERA: (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: He remembers his panicked father warning the family that it could only mean one thing. Negron returned to the scene, his father on the prow with a shotgun. That night, this bird was not a bird. It was a warlock converted into a bird bringing death, he says. I'll never forget the terror of going out there that night with my father to get it. The only way to stop the curse, he says, was to kill that warlock. Negron acknowledges that plenty of ordinary birds have probably been killed by people who thought the creatures were something they weren't.

Professor Constantino Contreras says for many Chilotes the supernatural world sits comfortably alongside their centuries-old Catholic faith. He says the Jesuits who evangelized here did not wipe out native beliefs so much as they incorporated them into a religious context. Contreras says Chiloe's isolation has also helped islanders cultivate a strong sense of identity, allowing the myths and legends to endure.

Professor CONTRERAS OYARZUN: (Through Translator) They are part of the essence of being Chilote, along with the music, the food and the climate. They're part of the identity of the islanders.

MCCARTHY: At 64, author Jorge Negron says he's now a conservative skeptic, a long way from his terrified youth felling warlocks. But not so skeptical that he can't instruct his wife on how to drive out the pesky house elf that she insists keeps hiding her things. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Chiloe.

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