We just got back from two weeks in Peru and Ecuador (photos here, if you’re interested). Machu Picchu and the Galapagos! It was a wonderful trip. On the last day in Quito, we paid a short visit to the Mindalae (Museo Etnohistorico Del Artesanias Del Ecuador), a small but well-curated ethnographic museum, with an interesting selection of the artwork and craftwork of the various peoples of Ecuador.
In the gift shop, my sister-in-law spotted a collection of Ecuadorean ghost stories (cuentos de aparecidos), which she then waved under my nose. How could I resist?
The cuentos in the collection are all post-colonial, Catholic-oriented ghost stories; mildly disappointing, though not too surprising. The author, Mario Conde, presents them as occurring in specific towns and locales throughout Ecuador (mostly the highlands, and none in the Amazon regions), though most of the stories are found throughout the Christian areas of Ecuador. I should probably give you a story with a specific Ecuadorean beastie, like a duende or a huaca, but the story of the Enchanted Priest caught my eye. It feels just a little bit like something you might find in The Decameron, or The Canterbury Tales: a priest up to sexual mischief.
In the village of Pataqui, about 30 miles or so from San Jose de Minas, there was a young couple about to be married. The groom was strong and handsome, a member of the Cuerpo de Rurales, a sort of civil militia or police force that patrolled the roads for bandits and highwaymen. His bride-to-be was from a nearby village, and she was breathtaking. They say that she was so beautiful that men were struck dumb at the sight of her.
Now Pataqui was too small to have its own priest; instead there was a priest who came from San Jose de Minas once a week or so to say Mass, and to meet the needs of the parishioners. This priest wasn’t a very good man — or at least, not a very priestly one. And when he saw the bride enter the church to get married, looking even more beautiful than usual in her wedding dress, the priest fell immediately, hopelessly in lust.
Time passed. One day, early in the morning, the couple went to see the priest, with a gift of a bronze bell. The wife was pregnant, and the couple wanted the priest to bless the unborn child.
The idea that the woman that he lusted for was pregnant drove the priest a little crazy with jealousy. He lectured the couple sternly, telling them that he couldn’t just bless the child blindly, without checking up on the baby’s parents first. The husband had to leave that same morning to go on patrol with the Rurales, but the wife agreed to meet the priest at the church at noon, so he could ask her a few questions. The priest promised that once he made sure that everything was all right, then he would bless the baby.
So at noon, the woman arrived at the church, alone. The priest took her off to a small room and began to ask her questions. Personal, intimate questions. It seems that in those days, some people believed that a baby was created by the act of sex — not just in the egg-and-sperm way, but literally formed. Each time the parents-to-be had sex, they were creating another body part for the child. So of course the priest had to make sure that the couple had made the baby correctly, right? He had to make very, very sure.
After all his questions, the priest shook his head sadly. The woman’s husband hadn’t given the baby eyes. And unless that was fixed immediately, the baby would be born deformed.
What to do? The woman’s husband would be on patrol for the next two days; by the time he returned, it would be too late. So the priest gallantly offered to fill in for the husband, and give the baby eyes. Reluctantly, the woman agreed, and the priest got what he wanted.
As soon as they finished, a cock began to crow — the signal that an infidelity has happened. The priest blessed the unborn baby (hey, at least he kept that part of the deal), and the woman thanked him. As she left the church, she angrily promised to give her husband a piece of her mind when he got back, for not making the baby right.
Oops. The priest decided that he didn’t want to be in town when the husband discovered what had happened, so he took the bell that the couple had given him, jumped on his mule, and left town. And that was the last time anyone ever saw him.
The way from Pataqui to San Jose de Minas took about an hour in those days, along a twisty path through the mountains. The path was scattered with boulders and crags, and also with caves, where often the bandits and highwaymen hid. As the priest rode along road, there was a sudden thunderstorm, and a furious downpour. The priest got completely soaked. Cursing, slipping through the mud, the priest led his mule into an opening in the rocks that formed a sort of cave. As he entered the cave, he thought he heard a cock crow….
Once in the cave, the priest did his best to dry himself off, and to dry off his little bell, too. The bell hummed a bit as he polished it, but it didn’t give off the high ring you’d expect a little bell, to give. Instead, it gave off a deeper sound. Like funeral bells.
What’s that? He heard a rooster crow, for the third time. And then his bell began to toll — on its own, slow and deep. Dong. Dong. Dong. It tolled twelve times, and than the earth began to shake.
With horror, the priest realized that the walls of the cave were closing in! Before he could escape, the entrance of the cave closed up. Everything was dark.
From the outside, all that could be seen on the side of the mountain was a scar, where the cave had once been.
Today, that place is known as The Rock of the Enchanted Priest. They say that every Sunday at noon, if you are on the trail nearby, you can hear a rooster crow. After that, you will hear a bell toll twelve times. It’s the enchanted priest, still doing penance for his sins.
I really wanted to find out more about those “forming the baby” beliefs, but I wasn’t able to turn up anything, at least not with respect to the highland peoples of Ecuador. I did find some similar beliefs, from Amazonian peoples:
Rather than insemination — that single moment when the male sperm fertilizes the waiting egg — the key metaphor for conception in Amazonia is “nurture” or “feeding”: The fetus grows as it is fed regular infusions of semen from men and blood from its mother. In the Northwest Amazon,the metaphor is especially explicit. For Tukanoan men, feeding defined being a father: First they fed semen to the fetus through repeated acts of insemination; after birth, they waited anxiously for the newborn infant to become capable of eating solid food,so that they could begin feeding the child again, now with cooked manioc and other foods.
As in other parts of Amazonia, the child is said to result from the coagulation of female blood and male semen. I felt during conversations with informants (observing the movement of their scooped hands) that they were trying to impress on me that there should be an equal proportion of semen and blood, and hence repetitive sexual intercourse. As the clot forms, it is activated — energized — by the Creator’s soul matter and becomes a child. So the child is all formed from the start; there is no process of transformation or metamorphosis, only a process of growth.
If a woman has multiple sex partners, her child could have multiple fathers, since all of the mother’s lovers could have potentially contributed semen to the formation of the baby.
Both the researchers I’ve cited relate this theory of reproduction to the Amazonian version of couvade, childbirth rites performed by the father(s) after childbirth. In the case of Amazonians, couvade consists of certain dietary restrictions, and abstinence from sex by both the mother and the father(s).
Is the Amazonian reproductive theory related to the beliefs described in the story of the enchanted priest? I don’t know, but it’s certainly interesting in its own right. The papers I’ve cited are both available on JSTOR, if you belong to a subscribing institution.
Photos: Nina Zumel. Top photo: Ollantaytambo, Peru. Bottom photo: Kenko archeological site, Peru. Yes, I know, the wrong country….
Source for my retelling of “The Enchanted Priest”: Mario Conde (Christopher Minster and Taylor Nelms, trans.), Ecuadorean Ghost Stories/Historias Ecuatorianas de Aparecidos (Bilingual edition), 2nd edition, 2010. Grupo Editorial Gráficas Amaranta, Quito.