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Bertha Koessler-Ilg and Her Mapuche Indian Tales
“CUENTA EL PUEBLO MAPUCHE”
(The Mapuche people tell stories)
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
Although the translation of these books from German into Spanish had been requested and completed a few years earlier, the new edition of the Mapuche tales, collected over many years of patient work by Bertha Koessler born Ilg in San Martín de Los Andes, Argentina was finally launched in May 2007 in Santiago, Chile.
Bertha Koessler was German and was born in 1881 in Obernzell, Bavaria. As a young girl, she spent some time on the island of Malta, where one of her uncles was German consul. There, she researched the folkloric and traditional traits of the original people of this island. Later, after studying and graduating as a nurse in Germany, she married the young doctor Rudolf Koessler. Together they emigrated to Argentina and lived for a few years in Buenos Aires, working at the city’s German hospital. However, their spirit of adventure was not yet satisfied; so, after being informed that there was a small town called San Martín de los Andes in Argentine Patagonia, remote and undeveloped, where there was no doctor, they decided to visit the place and settled there permanently. . Here they raised their family and Bertha divided her time between her duties as a mother and housewife and assistant to her husband. But she also spent a lot of time collecting old tales about the indigenous people of the area, many of whom came to see the doctor, and it was an endeavor she thoroughly enjoyed. With some of these Mapuche Indians, she was able to have long conversations and gradually gain their trust to finally become her friends.
She tells us that she usually had to go to great lengths to overcome the natural shyness of the Indians and their reluctance to reveal anything about their Mapuche origin, as it was considered contrary to the commandments of their deities. However, slowly and patiently, Frau Bertha managed to gain their trust while learning their language, Mapudungun. She must have a very good command of the language, as evidenced by the German explanations she adds to each Mapudungun term. In the evenings, after listening carefully to the stories told to her by the Mapuche Indians, she would sit down and carefully record them in German, inserting original Mapudungun phrases followed by German translations of their meaning.
Although Frau Bertha spoke seven languages, including Arabic and Mapudungun, German was her mother tongue and it is not only logical that she preferred to express her thoughts in this language, but it was also the right procedure, as we translators know very well.
The collection of his manuscripts is very vast and includes not only tales as such, but also a complete research of the indigenous culture with poems, songs, prayers, magic practices, riddles, children’s games, traditions and even a glossary of the Mapudungun language. This first part of his work was published in 1962 by the Instituto de Filología de la Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias de la Educación de l’Universidad Nacional de La Plata in Buenos Aires and has now been reprinted without changes. However, his collection of Mapuche myths and legends, tales and fables had not been published at all, perhaps because they were all written in German. Despite Frau Berta’s great efforts to find people or a publishing house who would take an interest in the subject, compile and publish her work, she did not succeed. Thus, many years have passed and the precious collection has remained unpublished.
In his time, the Mapudungun language was generally not considered as important as, for example, Quechua or Guarani, which were retained and spoken by the natives of Peru and Bolivia and Paraguay even after the Spanish conquest. and the colonial era, until today. . At present, this 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 region of Araucania and published glossaries of the Mapudungun language (Voz de Arauco, first edition July 1944. Registration number 10492, printed in Padre Las Casas, Chile).
The Koessler family wanted to fulfill Frau Bertha’s wish to compile all of their grandmother’s tales and publish them in Spanish, all the more so after Bertha Koessler’s death in 1965 without being able to achieve her goal. In Chile, the anthropologist Rolf Foerster and Juan Arribas, director of the Spanish publisher Mare Nostrum, in addition to other personalities, undertook the task and thus, after many years and obstacles, Bertha Koessler’s collection of tales has landed on my desk with the request to translate them into Spanish. They constitute two additional volumes.
Although some topics, especially those referring to Mapuche customs and beliefs, are repeated in the large amount of tales, it is extremely interesting to study the idiosyncrasy of these peoples. Many times appear the so-called “machis” (medicine women) and sorcerers who kept people in a state of fear with their witchcraft and curses, with which they could persecute those who did not obey their orders. They kidnapped young girls and subjected them to cruel slavery; their power could not be thwarted and therefore no one dared to challenge them. Until the day a young hero appears who confronts and defeats the monster, usually in great and dangerous adventures. We see a certain similarity with certain European tales such as, for example, those of the German Grimm brothers or the novels of Spanish knights.
There are also stories of natural cataclysms and they even tell of a long period of rains and darkness suffered by the Indians, which had been forced upon them by one of their deities. It reminds us of the biblical flood. The most dangerous of these gods and which is mentioned very frequently was the Pillán, who was supposed to live on the Villarrica volcano. He used to unleash terrible storms and destroy mountains, forests, rivers and anything he found within reach in his fury. In Chile, we experience natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, etc. Thus, the Mapuche tales reflect the geographical, meteorological and seismic reality of this part of the South American subcontinent.
Among the reports there are also historical episodes such as, for example, 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 of a land of shadows and darkness, where water abounds and one suffers from cold and bad climatic conditions. Later, these people returned to their original homeland in Argentina, where their companions gave them land so that they could live again in their natural environment and according to their ancient custom. They also tell of wars between different tribes, which used to be very cruel and bloody and always ended with the victor kidnapping the women and taking all the property of the vanquished. Some stories tell of the Spanish invasion and the distrust of the Indians towards these warriors who could shoot instead of fighting with arrows, “bolas” or even hand-to-hand combat. They refer to the powerful king “Winka” (white man) who lived on the other side of the “great pond”, i.e. the ocean, and who sent his soldiers to conquer new lands for him. However, they say that this king was good and just, but his armies committed all kinds of abuses against the Indians, openly breaking the rules that their king ordered them to follow. This is a very remarkable feature.
Also present are tales of life after death, of the dead and their transcendent life. The living communicated with the deceased, and these come out of the lakes, on whose soil they continue to exist. From there, they return to visit their loved ones and haunt their old homes. Sometimes they take a loved one with them to the deep waters, after which the end of the stories can be a temporary return to earth or the final disappearance of the hero or heroine.
The translation itself was a long and laborious undertaking, not devoid of difficulties due mainly to the desire to reproduce as well as possible the simple, almost primitive language used by the Mapuches and which Bertha Koessler succeeded in imitating so well in German. She uses many Mapudungun words, after which she immediately adds their meaning in German, thus clarifying quite precisely what the Mapuche reporter wants to express. However, it is 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 to make it more fluent, although much of the fidelity of the original expression was lost. It was an unavoidable cost that had to be borne for literary reasons.
The publication of Bertha Koessler’s magnificent work is a great success. It is interesting to note that after so many years of frustration for the author because she could not find a publisher, her work was finally published in Chile and not in Argentina, where she lived and loved. However, it must be considered that the Mapuche people are much more numerous in our country than in Argentina, where they come from.
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