“No mire el río para nada,
el río no se puede mirar
cómo nos toca mirarlo a nosotros
porque ya estamos viejos”
“Don’t look to the river for anything,
the river can’t see itself
the way we have to see it ourselves
because we are already old”
– Honda, Tolima, Colombia, 2017. Documented by
As the northern Andes pass into Colombia they split into three smaller ranges. To the west, the Cordillera Occidental rises up from the Pacific Plains. Between them and the Cordillera Central lies the Cauca River Valley. Further east, between the Cordillera Central and the Cordillera Oriental, lies the Magdalena River and the Magdalena River Valley. The Magdalena has also had a few different names in its long history. There’s Arli, meaning “river of fish”, which indicates the prominence of the fishing trade along its course, particularly of the once-plentiful bocachicos which are now in danger of extinction. Yuma is another name, meaning “river of the friendly country and mountains”. Yet other Indigenous peoples called the river Guacahayo, meaning “river of tombs” – indeed, it was common practice for some to let the river carry away the bodies of the dead. Most often, though, the Magdalena has been known by the sobriquets Caripuaña or Río Grande, both meaning Big River.
In fact, its basin covers nearly a quarter of Colombia’s landmass and encompasses a large portion of its population. The Magdalena flows from the snowcapped volcanic peaks around Neiva in the south. From there it travels north past highlands, forests, marshes, and swamps before emptying into the Caribbean Sea at the city of Barranquilla. Long a route for travel, the Spanish would find it ideally suited for navigating into the interior in the 16th century. Yet voyaging as far up river as Honda took exceptional skill and hard work. First, enslaved natives and then Africans were used to transport up to ten tons of goods at a time in canoes of up to fourteen rowers. These enslaved oarsmen became known as bogas, and as they traversed the waters of the river under grueling conditions they formed for themselves a new identity that remains among river navigators today. The Spanish, when they rode with the bogas, would travel in the shade of an arch made of palm fronds. The bogas watched the treacherous river, cautious of the threats to life and limb. The Europeans, on the other hand, had respite to dream of the mythical city of El Dorado. At some point, however, different stories emerged that continue to occupy the thoughts of travelers and inhabitants along the river to this day.
These stories tell of the Mohán, also sometimes known as the Poira. The stories differ in numerous ways. Upriver, in the mountainous southernmost portions of the valley, they often speak of the Mohán with fear. They say he is all black, with red flashing eyes. Sightings of the Mohán there are seen as a portent of future disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and disease. A little farther downstream he cuts a slightly less malignant figure: a dark-skinned giant with bright reddish eyes and crooked gold teeth. As the water passes the white peaks of Los Nevados, the final resting place of the souls of the dead according to Muisca belief, the accounts change yet again. There, the Mohán is seen as a small muscular man who is quite sociable, making appearances in the towns and even partying into the night… but always vanishing without a trace, returning to the river. So many differences suggest that there are actually numerous Moháns.
Most accounts agree that his appearance is unkempt – long hair, long beard, long nails – or else animalistic. They say he is usually found smoking a strong cigar, at least in part to keep mosquitos away. Boaters are wary of turning a corner and finding him sitting on the banks watching them in a cloud of smoke. He might at times be glimpsed fixing nets and singing, or on stormy nights he might be heard laughing loudly while fishing in the rain. Occasionally he is known to play tiple (similar to a guitar) or flute, making careful attention to the soundscape an essential part of river navigation. Yet the Mohán is said to have the ability to disguise himself if need be, normally in order to visit a market in search of tobacco, aguardiente liquor, or women.
The Mohán is infamous for abducting women. He is said to use tricks, including hypnotism, to seduce the women washing clothes along the river… a reason to never do the washing alone. At times he would make promises to the women of eternal youth if only they would follow him below the river’s surface. All along the banks of the Magdalena, the women told such tales. The stories spread throughout the department of Tolima, and along the river’s tributaries in Huila and Cundinamarca. The most vulnerable women, they say, are virgins – particularly if menstruating. Menstrual blood will attract the Mohán from the depths, and after securing his prey by deception or force he will take her back down to his home below the water. There she would join his collection of captive consorts. On moonlit nights perhaps she would emerge again with the rest of his mistresses to dance on the brach as the Mohán plucked his tiple and laughed.
The men fare slightly better in their encounters with the Mohán. Various accounts relate how the Mohán causes mischief for fishermen. Every once in a while, though, he interacts with them amicably. While he may be guilty of stealing bait, decreasing catches, breaking or stealing nets, or even causing capsizings and drownings, there are instances when his attitude is more diplomatic. One fisherman recalls meeting an elderly stranger on the river one day in his youth and asking him why he wouldn’t bait his catch. To the young fisherman’s horror, the old man insisted he needed no bait. Yet the stranger, baitless, proceeded to lift a large quantity of fish out of the water. The young man was impressed. The old man then looked at the youngster’s catch, asking what he planned to do with them. “I’m taking them to my mother to sell. She strings them together and she sells them for us, for the children.” The old man answered, “That’s good, that’s good.” The young man crouched down to begin putting his fish in his bag, and when he looked up the old man had vanished. He had left all of his own fish behind. This fisherman told an interviewer in 2017 that he knew at that moment that the stranger had been the Mohán.
Fishermen bring tobacco and liquor to the river as a form of supplication, hoping that the Mohán will bring them the best catch, or at the very least allow them to fish in peace. The dominant sensation is that the Mohán is playing a game with them. When fishing at night the choppy waters push their boats all around, trapping their nets in the stones and sticks below the surface. When this happens, the fishermen always curse the Mohán for their misfortunes. But many say that playing with the fishermen is not his only objective and that success lies in not only trying to placate the Mohán but also in knowing how to read his will. There are days, they say, when the Mohán simply doesn’t want you to fish. They suggest that he will punish you for taking fish that are too small, as well. These fishermen believe that the Mohán wants principally to protect the river. They also sometimes claim that all his reputation as a miscreant can be attributed to one tragic incident when a woman he loved was stolen away from him by one of the old river navigators, a boga. Such is the tale told by writer Flor Romero in the story “El Mohán Enamorado”. It is also the basis of the guabina song “El Río y El Mohán” written by José Villalba and recorded by Garzón and Collazos:
So now, as the story goes, the Mohán prefers to collect women in his underwater refuge. That refuge has also been described multiple times, although we cannot know how such knowledge made it to shore. It has been described as a palatial cave or series of caves filled with treasures like precious stones and gold upholstery. Some say the walls are made entirely of glass or mirrors, while others say it is filled with thick golden columns. The descriptions suggest that the Mohán’s residence is dry inside, a comfortable place for playing his music and smoking his cigars. He didn’t always live in his subaquatic lair, however. Before moving there the Mohán walked on the land as a sorcerer with the power to summon storms and eclipses, to cure sicknesses, and to transform into a jaguar to protect the riverside from evil. He had incredible foresight, as well, and foresaw the arrival of the Spanish. This is likely the source of all his treasures, which he decided to hide from the invaders and has guarded ever since. Although it is also likely that the Mohán himself is just such a treasure, buried deep in the river as a way to preserve him.
Franciscan friar Pedro Simón, source of much of our information from the period of the Spanish conquest, described the mohanes as “the pestilence against our holy Catholic faith and those who stop the current of the conversion of these natives.” These Moháns were not beasts of the Magdalena, but were instead members of their terrestrial communities. Simón elaborate on the threat posed by these mohanes: “everything that the priests teach by day, they contradict and they unleash at night in hidden and secluded places, where they ordinarily speak with the devil.” The devil in question was identified by the Spanish as Buziraco, for whom considerable folklore exists, but whose true origins are clouded by the fogs of the conquest. In reality, the mohanes – a term which the Spanish loosely applied across wide variances of Indigenous practice – were persons responsible for transmitting customs and social structure. As such, they would have been emissaries of figures such as that which the Muisca call Bochica (its superficial resemblance to Buziraco is noteworthy).
Bochica, as the Muisca tell it, was the father of civilization. He came from the east and taught the Muisca of morality and social order before departing for an ascetic life in the west. The Muisca failed to follow his teachings, however, resulting in the flooding of the Bogotá savanna. Bochica returned to rescue the Muisca, striking his staff against the edge of the plateau to form Tequendama Falls. The subsequent draining of the savanna resulted in the emptying of the Bogotá River into the Magdalena, and the watering of all the fertile lands below. The preservation of customs and social order – the purview of the mohanes – was thus closely linked to water. The mohanes used tobacco and coca in their practice of traditional medicine and the reading of natural omens. Pedro Simón described a ritual conducted in secret (concealed from the Spanish conquerors) in which a mohán invoked the “devil” which Simón called Buziraco. According to Simón, the mohán would prepare a large vessel filled with water into which the men and women would drop necklaces, bracelets, and other pieces of gold. The mohán would then throw tobacco leaves on top of the water, in effect concealing what was inside.
Simón described the appearance of a mohán named Paraico. He described him as “half a jester and a fool” before mentioning that his face was cleanshaven, as was typical of mohanes for ritualistic reasons. This, of course, is a significant difference from the appearance of the mythical Mohán of the river, with his long beard. Mohanes were subjected by the Spanish to forced public whippings at the hands of members of their own communities in a bid to humiliate them and undermine their authority. At the same time, they were also forced to shave their heads… another inconsistency with the aquatic Mohán. Then again, what first appears as inconsistent is really a product of just such a dynamic, of putting the whip in the hand of the believer and compelling them to undermine the object of their beliefs. In such a scenario, tobacco leaves become cigars and water becomes aguardiente (roughly equivalent to the North American term “fire water”). What the believer does in such a situation is just what the ritual has prepared them for: they bury the object of their belief deep in the waters of civilization.
The womanizing of the Mohán is, too, a broken reflection of the mohán who walked on the land. In a cosmology that centered on the balance between hot and cold, a woman’s menstruation was seen as creating a temperature imbalance with water. As such, traditional sanitary rituals likely explain the behavior of the Mohán as much as the sins of lust or longing that the Catholic conquerors sought to defame the Indigenous leaders with. Today the Regional Indigenous Council of Tolima (CRIT) is the official source of doctrine related to the Mohán. They insist that the Mohán of Indigenous tradition is a completely beneficial being. Their work, it seems, is to recover both the Mohán and his treasure from the depths. In the meantime, school curricula, songs, books, festivals, and parks around the nation continue to recall the legends of a creature that is still lurking and waiting, protecting his secrets and jealous of his autonomy.
The reclamation of the Mohán is complicated by the fact that it is utterly a product of the Spanish conquest. According to a Spanish friar who voyaged on the Magdalena in 1580, Bartolomé Briones de Pedraza, the word mohán comes from the Malibu language, which at the time of the Spanish arrival was only spoken close to the mouth of the Magdalena in the coastal Caribbean plains. Its original iteration was mayhan, and at least linguistically speaking it was quite distinct from the words used by other Indigenous populations along the river: payé (Desana), piache (Guajibo), mamo (Kogui), jaibaná (Embera), and taita (Sibundoy) are some of the other titles for religious specialists which survive to this day. Mohán, therefore, could only have the most general meaning when applied to other linguistic groups, especially those as far away as the Muisca and the Tolima/Panche. The best original definition of the Spanish word mohán, in the final estimation, is exactly what Pedro Simón said it meant in 1626: that which threatened to hinder the dominance of Spanish priests in their work as part of the colonial project. Writing nearly half a century after de Pedraza heard the Malibu word, Simón summed up all the medieval Spanish mind understood of it. Like it or not, that is still part of the semantic legacy of the word today.
Most people in Colombia today wouldn’t say that the social order protected by the Mohán is either Spanish or Indigenous. They might say it is related to fish, to the ability to provide for one’s family. They might say it is a cautionary tale for young women in their prime, one of so many others around the world. But with the all-important wild bocachico population in decline, fish farming is distancing the fishing industry from the bogas of yore. Colombia’s waterways suffer from contamination. The Magdalena continues to serve as a source of water and food, even as it displays high levels of nickel, copper, lead, cadium, and mercury. The Tequendama Falls now has the distinction of being one of the most polluted waterfalls in the world.
An origin story of the Mohán claims that as the Spanish priests arrived and the mohanes took to the river some other people became animals and fled into the forests. This resonates with stories that some jumped off Tequendama Falls and became eagles, flying away. It is unsure what methods the Mohán, or Colombians in general, will find to adapt to the challenges that they will face tomorrow. Maybe this time, like before, the Mohán sees what’s coming before the rest of us. Maybe he will impart some of that knowledge to us in his songs of cigar smoke before the last net is cast in the Magdalena River, and the last macabre laugh echoes along the banks on a stormy night. Or maybe he’ll just drag us all down with him.
Jeremy Ray Jewell is an American writer of folkways. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com
Yulia San Miguel is a Colombian artist and designer. Her Instagram is www.instagram.com/yuliasanmiguelart
Support this project on Patreon: www.patreon.com/jeremyrayjewell