Saturday, April 09, 2005

Folklore and the Horrors of War: "El Luison" and Cadaver-Eating Dogs

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Myth and folklore can seem terribly irrelevant to learners in distance courses, particularly when they are asked to read texts with little or no connection to anything else. Making connections to theories of personality (Jung, Neumann, Joseph Campbell) and strategies for interpreting advertising and persuasive texts can be one way to make myth and folklore relevant. Another way is to examine how folklore and beliefs arose from specific incidents in a community's history, specifically war or political change. One example is how societies deal with the horrors of war. Here is one example.

“The wild dogs of Najaf, Iraq, ate well this week.” Those were the words I heard on Fox News Channel just before I went to sleep. Now it is sometime past 3 am and something is breathing next to my bed – an animal presence. I look over and see three black dogs looking up at me. Something is warm and hovering just over my body, something is pinning the duvet cover down around my legs. I feel my temperature rise, and I am filled with strange longings mixed with dread. With a start, I awaken completely.

Guilderland, New York - photo by Susan Smith Nash



I’m not quite awake, but I’m not asleep. It is night. I am not sure of the time, or even of the place. I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and it’s not unusual to wander around for a few seconds in that space between wakefulness and sleep and not quite know where I am. That does not bother me. What does bother me is the sense that there is something in the room with me. Red glowing pinpoints of light. Is it a smoke detector? The sound of the fan partially masks the sound of soft exhalations.

I’m in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow territory, but I’m not familiar with any werewolf tales around here. Is there a folk tale or myth that describes what I’ve just experienced? If there is, I’m not familiar with it, at least not where I live, a couple of blocks away from the “20 Mall” with a Dunkin Donuts, Price Chopper, Blockbuster, two local banks, Subway, Magic Wok, Eckerd, and an open 24-hours CVS pharmacy. I’m in the U.S., but I’m suddenly thinking of the small, poor, landlocked and largely unknown country of Paraguay.

In Paraguay, folklore met urban legend in Sombras en la Noche, an X-Files-inspired television series that was making a big splash in November 1996, when I arrived in Asuncion, the capital, for the first time, in order to give a few lectures on American film and literature and to start investigating Paraguayan women’s literature. One of the members of the audience came up and introduced himself to me as Carlos Tarvajal, a Uruguayan film director working in Paraguay. He screened several of the episodes for me at the Universidad Catolica in Asuncion, and I was instantly fascinated. From a U.S. standpoint, Sombras en la Noche was a pretty low-budget affair, with hand-held cameras and film that looked more like something shot for a reality television show. Actually, come to think of it, it was a precursor of reality television, or a cousin of Cops, since it purported to document things that really happened in rural Paraguay.

The most popular episodes had to do with a small town plagued by a luison, a werewolf-type creature, but many times more ghastly. Drawn from indigenous Guarani folklore, the luison is a hideous wild dog-like creature with razor-sharp teeth and red, glowing eyes that feeds on cadavers it takes out of crypts and tombs in the cemetery. Even worse, after feeding on the flesh of the dead, it turns its eyes on the living, and feeds on them as well. The luison devours the soul of the living, and thus toys with one’s fate. The luison lives among the townspeople as a normal human being during the day. However, one a full moon, he reverts to his beastly form, leaves his home, and begins feeding in the cemeteries. http://members.tripod.com/lio/mitolo.htm

To fully understand how and why Paraguayans consider the luison to be the most horrible of the creatures of the forest, night, and dreams, it is helpful to have a basic familiarity with Paraguayan folkloric creatures. The indigenous peoples of Paraguay are the Guarani, who lived in the forests, jungles around Iguazu Falls, and chaparral (the “chaco”) region in what is now Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Their influence has remained, and in fact, Paraguayans have two official languages: Guarani and Spanish. The Guarani language is similar to Anglo-Saxons in that it creates nouns and adjectives by combining concrete nouns. Abstract concepts are related to concrete examples, which create a very metaphorical (and thus poetic) language. States of being are often expressed in terms of transformation, where an individual undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes a creature. For example, animals of the forest are thought to be able to metamorphose into a physically altered state which often corresponds to their inner condition.

What makes the luison much more ghastly than the average werewolf is how the myth became reanimated and changed with the devastating Chaco War, fought for three horrible years (1932-1935) between Bolivia and Paraguay in the arid, semi-desert Gran Chaco. Although Paraguay won the war on paper, the cost in human life was staggering. Fought in the inhospitable lands where there are numerous tropical diseases, poisonous plants, snakes, scorpions, insects, and animals, stinging thornbrush, quebracho, and absolutely no potable surface water, the suffering of soldiers on both sides was grisly. There was no way to bury the dead, which rose to a total of 100,000 by the end.

Many died of malaria, thirst, heat exhaustion, and infection. Both nations were desperately poor, and could not afford to get adequate supplies to the troops. As the commands of both sides made suicidal decisions, the wild dogs came out at night and fed on the bodies of the dead and dying. More nightmarish than seeing one’s dead comrade be eaten by a wild dog, was to see a wounded fellow-soldier being gnawed alive. The luison had returned, with a monstrous intensity. When the surviving soldiers returned home, they returned with stories of luisons. As poverty, hunger, economic collapse and war stress set in, more died of tropical diseases. Buried in the above-ground crypts in glass cases, it was easy to imagine a wild dog with supernatural strength, razor teeth and the ability to shape-shift. I could see the luison tearing the flesh of loved ones, and the preying upon the hopes and dreams of the living.

“It was a way to explain post-traumatic stress syndrome,” explained Luisa Moreno, a Paraguayan writer familiar with Guarani traditions, whose short stories and poems written in both Guarani and Spanish incorporated folklore. In addition, she had spent two years investigating the sad state of public mental health care in Paraguay. “Instead of saying that he was suffering from depression, or having a psychotic break, you can just say that the luison stole his soul.”

It was not hard to believe. It was a good way to save face in the villages, particularly when it was fairly hard to disguise the weird behavior, the propensity to roam around at night, to scream at shadows, hear voices, howl at the moon, weep at nothing, sleep in cemeteries.

I had not thought of luisons for several years, until August 2004 and the bloody battle of Najaf, Iraq, fought in and around crypts and above-ground tombs holding the bodies of the Muslim faithful.

“The wild dogs of Najaf, Iraq, ate well this week.” That’s what a young Marine told a reporter covering Najaf. Photographs showed exhausted Marines sleeping in the dark shadows of crypts and tombs.

The Iraqi insurgents, who did not have the ability to recover their dead, dying, and wounded, left them in the streets where they fell. The Marines said that wild dogs fed on them, gnawing off arms and feet. The dogs even lurked in the shadows as they were finally able to bring their dead out of the street. Did the Iraqis have werewolf or luisons in their folklore or mythologies? If so, certainly those beliefs would be resuscitated in this nightmarish slice of hell.

“The stench of death is overpowering,” said one Marine sergeant. I wondered what would happen, sometime in the future, if the smell of death would trigger flashbacks, horrible memories. I remember attending a wake in Asuncion for a young man killed in a car accident almost a year to the day that his older brother had been killed in an accident. Ordinarily, the bodies are buried within a day, but it was Semana Santa and no one could find his father, who was somewhere in Argentina. No one wanted to bury the poor man’s only remaining child without his knowing, so there was the mother awake now for three days straight, her voice hoarse with weeping, kneeling at the side of her son, and Tia, kneeling also and chanting the rosary, tears dried on her face. I went to pay my respects and was shocked at the odor. Despite the meat-locker chill of the funeral home and the banks and banks of carnations, gladioli, lilies, and other flowers, nothing could disguise the smell of putrifying human flesh. Even now, when I smell something similar, I am immediately transported to that scene, and I can’t control the flood of thoughts and memories.

There were wild dogs in the streets of Asuncion. Not many, that’s true, but they were definitely there. One little black, skinny one was hiding in an open storm drain. He looked hungry and I tossed him a chunk of chipa guazu, a bagel-shaped Paraguayan corn and cheese bread cooked in earthen ovens and delivered to street vendors during the early dawn hours. A big piece spilled out of my bag. The dog scooped up the small piece and then darted to the bigger piece next to my leg. He brushed against my ankle, causing me to jump in surprise.

“Don’t ever pet a wild dog,” said Tia. “They carry diseases and other bad things.” There was something in her voice that caught my attention and made me think of the luisons. Don’t pet a wild dog. It could be a luison, a descendant of one of those tragic and doomed Chaco soldiers, destined to roam the streets and howl as it scavenged scraps and realized that no one, just absolutely no one would ever pet it. It could turn on you. It could bite you. And, it could steal your soul.

Late at night, when the memories flood my mind and my heart, sometimes the only way I can deal with it is to drive, drive, drive under the full moon or go to the gym the instant it opens at 5 am and run on the treadmill until the anxiety subsides. Why do I feel this way? How do I account for it? Do I say that I was brushed by a luison?

And when the young Marines battle the demons invoked by smells, sounds, and images, what will they do? How will they account for it?

Just say they were brushed by a luison. Everyone will understand. And then, pray, pray, pray for them to get their souls back.

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