Translation Tuesday: Myths of the Nivaklé

Three unsettling myths of an indigenous tribe of Paraguay, translated by Elisa Taber

The Nivaklé are an indigenous tribe of the Gran Chaco, a sparsely populated region of Paraguay referred to as “the green hell.” These stories pertain to ethnographic statements by indigenous informants, compiled by the anthropologist Miguel Chase Sardi. Masking cultural identity is a recurring theme in this polyglot society’s mythology. Enacting submission to preserve agency seems contradictory. However, the narrative devices employed render a convincing mode of defying assimilation. By translating the informant’s statements I attempt to extract the narrative potential of these myths, in addition to making the work intelligible in English.

The Unfurrowing of Birds

We treat them like lepers because their mother became a savage. Collecting parrot eggs with her husband incited the change. Something shifted as he hacked a hole in the trunk and extracted the parrot’s nest within.

“Catch them,” he called down as he dropped a frail egg. His wife caught it. Instead of placing it in the basket, the woman broke the shell and consumed the chick. She swallowed the following one whole.

The nest was nearly empty. Her husband peered down and discovered that so was the nest.

“Where are the eggs?” he inquired. “Did you break them or eat them?”

“Silly man they’re right here.” The woman pointed at a lump under a cloth.

Convinced, he continued till the nest was empty. The concealed shape hadn’t grown.

“You’ve been eating the unborn chicks!” he accused.

“I am not foolish enough to eat them raw,” she replied in an insulted tone. “I buried them to keep them cool.”

“I can see,” he stopped to catch his breath as he climbed down, “the traces of blood on your upper lip.”

“Wait!” she called out and positioned herself to help him down.

“You wish I couldn’t, but you know I can do it alone,” he rebuffed.

“Place your foot in my palm. I won’t let you fall,” she instructed.

The woman cupped the sole of his foot with one hand and his bum with the other. That was his chance. He was a fool not to strike her with his axe. Instead, he leaned into her grasp. His wife slid her hand over his testicles and pulled. The man fell over in pain and hit his head. She leapt over the unconscious body, made certain he was dead. Mauled, neutered him and hung his testicles from their tree.

Informant Tanuuj

The Stud and the Married Woman

The woman led a solitary life. She married and had two children but spent most of her time with their horse. She tended to it, bringing him water and taking him out to pasture. An animal can be domesticated but cannot be forced to copulate. I know for certain that he desired her.

They had sex every day. One day, she made an exception and slept with her husband instead. Upon entering, he discovered that his wife’s vulva had grown deeper and wider. Shocked, he vacillated between fear and desire.

“Why can’t I fill the depth of her vulva?” he wondered.

The next day she set out to visit the stud. The day assigned to changing him to a different pasture.

“Can I come?” called out her younger son.

“No,” she denied swiftly, “I tied him up… far away.”

She was ashamed and afraid he would discover her secret. The horse’s arousal manifested itself as soon as he recognized her. He would whinny and buck out to her, the way studs call out to their mares.

The woman set out alone. She collected the horse at the watering hole and led him to a new pasture. He was far more excited than usual. Her youngest son had followed and hid nearby. Remaining unnoticed, as he watched the animal mount his mother.

“My mother’s a savage…” The boy murmured and ran home to his father.

“Mother has been lying with the stud,” he blurted out. “She has become his mare.”

Father remained silent that day. The following day, he trailed her with his bow and arrow. Watched her lead the stud to a new pasture and watched him mount her. Without uttering a word, he murdered his wife and killed the stud. Woman and beast died by his arrow. Unable to foresee the repercussions, he fled. The man travelled aimlessly from one settlement to the next with his sons.

Informant Casamshi

The Mare’s Sons

The siblings grew up travelling. “We haven’t come across another woman, since mother’s death,” they noted. “Who will we marry?” As young men this observation mounted into their main concern.

The eldest felt he must find a solution. After venturing into the woods he grew certain that he could.

He confided in his younger brother, “Let me throw a doca in between your legs. Perforating the fruit might be like penetrating a woman. If it is, a woman will materialize.”

The youngest responded by taking his loincloth off. He waited, bare bottomed, for his brother to return with the fruit. The elder found the plant, tore the doca and hurled it against his sibling’s genitals. His body pierced the doca transforming him into a woman. The elder brother had to marry the younger brother, who became a younger sister and wife.

This is all I know. I don’t know what became of the family after that.

 Informant Casamshi


Elisa Taber is a multinational poet, translator and photographer. Freelancing enables her to shuttle between Argentina and the United States. Currently, she is writing a book of poems titled Mark Making and translating a compilation of Nivaklé myths, an indigenous tribe of the Gran Chaco. Elisa manages Spanish social media for Asymptote. See her website here.

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