The Primitive Customs of the Hummingbird

The fifth installment of my hummingbird folklore series comes from the Mbyá, a Guaraní people who inhabit the southern part of Paraguay in Guairá, parts of Brazil, and the Misiones Province of Argentina. This piece is the first chapter of the Ayvu Rapyta (which means roughly “the foundation of the world”), a book in the Mbyá-Guaraní language that records their myths and religious traditions. The book — full title Ayvu Rapyta: Textos míticos de los Mbya-Guarani — was compiled by Paraguayan anthropologist León Cadogan and published in 1959. This version is my translation of Dr. Cadogan’s Spanish translation.

As in the Ohlone myths of California, Hummingbird (and Owl, apparently) are present at the creation of the world. Hummingbird feeds and refreshes Ñamandú, the “First Father,” as the First Father goes about the task of creation.

790px Anthracothorax nigricollis Piraju Sao Paulo Brasil 8

The Primitive Customs of the Hummingbird

Our Father, the Absolute First
created himself from the primordial darkness.

He created the divine soles of his feet,
His small round throne.
He created them as he grew in the primordial darkness.

The reflection of his divine wisdom, his divine all-hearing
His divine palms holding his scepter and flowering branches
these Ñamandú created as he grew from the primordial darkness.

Flowers adorned his divine feathered headdress like drops of dew;
And amidst the flowers of his sacred feathered crown
Hummingbird, the primeval bird, gamboled and flew.

Even while our first Father created his own divine body,
He existed in the midst of the primordial winds.

Before he conceived his future earthly dwelling,
before he conceived his future heavens, his future earth —
Hummingbird refreshed his mouth.

It was Hummingbird who sustained Ñamandú with the fruits of paradise.

Our Father Ñamandú, the First,
before he created his future paradise
He did not see the darkness
although the sun did not yet exist.

The reflection of his own heart illuminated him;
His divine wisdom served as the sun.

Our true Father Ñamandú, the First,
dwelt amidst the primordial winds;
Where he stopped to rest
the Owl produced darkness:
for already the cradle of night existed.

Before the true Father Ñamandú, the First,
created his future paradise, before the creation of the first earth,
He existed in the midst of the primordial winds.

The primal winds in which Our Father existed return
with the arrival of the primal space-time
with the resurgence of the primitive season.
As the old season ends
with the flowering of the lapacho tree
the winds bring the new season.
The new winds come, the new space,
bringing the resurrection of space-time.

(Note) The pink lapacho (Handroanthus impetiginosus), also called the pink ipê or pink trumpet tree, is the national tree of Paraguay. Its pink flowers appear between July and September, before the leaves.

360px Tabebuia impetiginosa hábito 2

John Bierhorst also gives a translation (I assume his own) of this chapter in his collection Latin American Folktales, titled “The Beginning Life of the Hummingbird.” In his notes to the piece, he identifies the primal space-time (it’s “time-space” in the Spanish and in his translation, but “space-time” sounds more natural to me, Star Trek enthusiast that I am) with winter, and the “new space-time” (“new season” in my translation) with spring. Bierhorst’s translation differs in meaning from mine in the part about Owl; he renders that section as:

The true Ñamandú Father, the First Being, lived in the primal winds. He brought the screech owl to rest and made darkness. He made the cradle of darkness.

Pretty much the opposite meaning from my rendering. I’m not so confident of my Spanish as to assert definitively that I’m correct — I’m pretty shaky on that passage, honestly. But I will offer evidence to support my interpretation, or something close to it. In his book Tradiciones Guaraníes en el Folklore Paraguayo, León Cadogan gives his translation of what he calls “the Mbyá-Guaraní equivalent of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis.” The relevant passage is as follows:

Among the branches of the ahu’y [black laurel] a small green grasshopper (tuku charãrã i) happily chirped. A hummingbird, (mainomby), hovered around the Creator, enlivening His tasks; while a small owl (urukure’a), sheltered Him from the rays of the sun already shining in the firmament. These three beings, the grasshopper with the earth, along with the tatu’i or small armadillo; the mbói yma or ñandurie (a tiny snake); and the ynambu pytã or great prairie partridge, are the only living beings that are not reincarnations of human beings who were later transformed into animals as punishment for their transgressions.

Here, Owl shades the First Father from the sun, which is rather like “the Owl produced darkness.” If you read Spanish, you can judge the passage for yourself; a transcription of the first chapter of Ayvu Rapyta is here (and more chapters, plus a link to the entire text, are here).

If you’re curious, I also give a translation of the “Mbyá-Guaraní Chapter 1 of Genesis” here.


Bierhorst, John. “The Beginning Life of the Hummingbird”, from Latin American Folktales, Pantheon, 2002.

Cadogan, León. “Capitulo I” (Chapter 1), from Ayvu Rapyta: Textos míticos de los Mbya-Guarani (Boletim No. 227 – Antropologia, No. 5. University of São Paulo, 1959) (Guaraní/Spanish)

— . “Yvyra Ju’y” (La columna de la tierra), from Tradiciones Guaraníes en el Folklore Paraguayo, Fundación “León Cadogan,” Centro de Estudios Paraguayos “Antonio Guasch,” Asunción-Paraguay, 2003. (Spanish)

English and Spanish language Wikipedia.


Female black-throated mango (Anthracothorax nigricollis). Photo by Dario Sanches. Source: Wikipedia.

Pink Lapacho (Tabebuia impetiginosa). Photo by Carla Antonini. Source: Wikipedia.

5 thoughts on “The Primitive Customs of the Hummingbird

  1. Thank you for another interesting story
    And for what is worth, I think your translation of the bit with the owl is the correct one, though I must confess that even as a native Spanish speaker I can’t quite get what the last line of that passage wants to say

    1. Thank you for the vote of confidence! Yes, I got all tangled up in the verbs on that last line. I’m guessing that Cadogan transliterated something and it came out all funny.

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