Rufina Suntul de Kurüinka, who provided information to Bertha Koessler.A tale of multiculturalism: a German researcher comes to Argentine Patagonia and records the tales of the indigenous Mapuche people. BY LIESELOTTE SCHWARZENBERG, PH.D.

The long years of patient work by Bertha Koessler née Ilg in San Martin de Los Andes, Argentina, collecting the tales of the Mapuche people are finally being recognized, as a new edition of the Spanish translation was finally launched in May 2007 in Santiago, Chile. Frau Bertha originally translated and recorded the stories from the Mapudungun language to her native German.

Germany to Argentina

Bertha Ilg was born in 1881 in Obernzell, Bavaria. As a young girl she spent some time on the Island of Malta, where an uncle was German consul. There she researched the folklore and traditions of that island’s original people. Later, after completing a degree in nursing in Germany, she married the young physician Rudolf Koessler. Together they emigrated to Argentina and lived for some years in Buenos Aires, working at the city’s German Hospital. However, their spirit of adventure had not been satisfied as yet; so, after hearing that there existed a small town named San Martín de los Andes in Argentine Patagonia, far away and undeveloped, where there was no doctor, they decided to visit the place and finally settled there for good. Here they raised their family, and Bertha shared her time between her tasks as a mother and housewife and as her husband’s assistant. But she also dedicated much time to collecting old tales of the region’s indigenous population, many of whom came to see the doctor, and this was an endeavor she very much enjoyed. With some of these Mapuche Indians she was able to have long conversations and little by little, they became her friends.

The Mapuche

Frau Bertha related that she usually had to make great efforts to overcome the Indians’ natural shyness and reluctance to reveal anything of their Mapuche background, because that was thought to be against the commandments of their deities. However, slowly and patiently she was able to win their confidence while learning their language, Mapudungun. She must have mastered the tongue very well, as becomes evident from the German explanations she adds to each Mapudungun term. In the evenings, after having listened attentively to the stories the Mapuche Indians told her, she sat down and carefully recorded them in German, inserting the original Mapudungun expressions followed by the German translations of their meaning. Although Frau Bertha spoke seven languages, including Arabic and Mapudungun, German was her native tongue and it is logical that she preferred to express her thoughts in this language.

The collection of her manuscripts is very extensive and includes not only tales as such, but also very complete research of the indigenous culture with poems, songs, prayers, magical practices, riddles, children’s games, traditions and even a glossary of the Mapudungun language. This first part of her work was published in 1962 by the Institute of Philology of the Humanities and Education Sciences Department of the National University of La Plata in Buenos Aires and now has been reprinted without changes. However, her collection of Mapuche myths and legends, tales and fables had not been published at all, possibly due to the fact that they were all written in German. In spite of Frau Bertha’s great efforts to find someone who would be interested in the subject, and who would compile and publish her work, she did not succeed. So, as many years went by, the valuable collection stayed unpublished.

In the era when Frau Bertha was conducting her research, the Mapudungun language was not generally considered as important as, for instance, Quechua or Guaraní, which have been conserved and spoken by the natives of Peru and Bolivia and of Paraguay even after the Spanish conquest and colonial times, until today. At present that concept has changed in favor of Mapudungun thanks to important studies undertaken by some Catholic priests, mainly Father Ernesto Wilhelm Moesbach, who lived and worked in the Chilean Araucanía region and published glossaries of the Mapudungun language (Voz de Arauco, first edition July 1944. Registration number 10492, printed in Padre Las Casas, Chile).

Frau Bertha’s grandchildren wanted to carry out her wish to compile all of the tales and publish them in Spanish, even more so after her death in 1965 without having been able to accomplish her goal. In Chile, the anthropologist Rolf Foerster and Juan Arribas, Director of the Spanish publisher Mare Nostrum, as well as Professor Jorge Vergara of the Universidad Arturo Prat of Iquique, undertook the task and thus, after many years and hindrances, Bertha Koessler’s tales landed on my desk with the request to translate them into Spanish.

Belief system

It is enormously interesting to study these peoples’ belief system. Often in the tales, the so called “machis” (medicine women) and sorcerers appear, who kept the people in a state of fright through their witchcraft and curses, with which they could persecute those who didn’t obey their orders. They would kidnap young girls and force them into cruel slavery. Their power could not be thwarted, and therefore nobody dared to challenge them, until one day, a young hero would confront and vanquish them, after great and dangerous adventures. Here we see a certain similarity with some European tales such as, for instance, those of the German Grimm brothers or the Spanish knight novels.

There also are stories about natural cataclysms, and there are even tales of a long period of rains and darkness suffered by the Indians that had been imposed on them by one of their deities. This reminds us of the biblical Flood. The most dangerous of the gods, and one who is mentioned very frequently, was Pillán, who was supposed to live in the Villarrica volcano. He used to unleash terrible storms and destroyed mountains, forests, rivers and everything he found at hand in his fury. In Chile, we are familiar with such natural catastrophes as earthquakes, floods, etc. Thus, the Mapuche tales reflect the geographic, meteorological and seismic reality of this part of the South American subcontinent.

Among the tales there are also historical episodes as, for instance, the exodus of a large Mapuche tribe that emigrated to the other side of the mountains, that is, to Chile, of which they spoke as a land of shadows and darkness, where water abounds and one suffers of cold and bad climactic conditions. Later, these people returned to their original homeland in Argentina, where their fellows gave them some land so they could live again in their natural environment and according to their ancient customs. They also talk about wars among different tribes that were very cruel and bloody and always ended with the victors abducting the women and taking all the possessions of the defeated. Some stories talk about the Spanish invasion and the mistrust felt by the Indians for those warriors who would shoot guns instead of fighting with arrows, bolas or in hand-to-hand combat. They refer to the powerful “winka” (white man) king who lived at the other side of the “great pond,” meaning the ocean, and who sent his soldiers to conquer new lands for him. However, they say that this king was kind and just, but that his armies committed all kinds of abuses against the Indians, openly violating the rules that their king had instructed them to follow. This is a very remarkable feature.

There are also tales about life after death, and the transcendent life of the dead. Living persons used to communicate with the deceased, who would come out of the lakes, where they continued to exist. From there they returned to visit their relatives and haunt their old homes. Sometimes they took a loved one along with them back into the deep waters. The stories would end with a temporary return to earth or the final disappearance of the hero.

A great achievement

The translation itself was a long and laborious endeavor, not lacking in difficulties, due mainly to the effort to reproduce as best as possible the simple language used by the Mapuches, which Bertha Koessler succeeded so well in imitating in German. She used many Mapudungun words, and then added their meaning in German, in such a way clarifying quite accurately what the Mapuche story teller wanted to express. However, it was not easy to reproduce the Mapuche way of speaking in Spanish. For this reason, the Spanish publisher found it necessary to edit the entire primary translation text so as to make it more fluent. By doing this, however, much of the faithfulness of the original expression was lost. This was an inevitable cost that had to be assumed for literary reasons.

The publication of Bertha Koessler’s magnificent work is a great achievement. It is worth noting that after so many years of frustration for the author because she couldn’t find a publisher, her work was published in Chile, not in Argentina, where she lived and which she loved. However, the Mapuche people are now much more numerous in Chile than in Argentina, from where they originally came. LS

(The Mapuche People Tell Tales)
by Bertha Koessler née Ilg
Published by Mare Nostrum Ltda.,
Santiago – Chile, 2006
Edited by Rolf Foerster González
Translated by Lieselotte Schwarzenberg M., Ph.D.
ISBN, complete edition: 978-84-96391-10-9
ISBN, first volume: 978-84-96391-11-6
Printed in Chile