El Muqui

Written by Jeremy Ray Jewell. Illustrations by Yulia San Miguel.

“Villa llactapi minero soy,

de los profundos socavones

tomando mi trago, chacchando

mi coca, viviendo, sufriendo estoy

Santa Barbara del mineral

de los profundos socavones 

Chunca hurnu pirkañaskayta

de los profundos socavones

Muqui del mineral, Muqui del azogue 

Huañuspa causaspa minero soy”

“I am a miner in the town of Villa,

of the deep tunnels

I am drinking my drink, chewing

my coca, living, suffering

Santa Barbara of ore,

of the deep tunnels

A hundred forges I have built,

in the deep tunnels

Muqui of ore, Muqui of mercury

Live or die, I am a miner.”

”El Muki”, Los Maqtas de Huancavelica*

If you walk through the markets of Cusco, Peru you will find persistent signs of Incan beliefs. Coca leaves may be bought for personal consumption or ritual purposes, but dried llama fetuses only serve for sacrifice. Elsewhere there are signs of syncretism, or mixing between different cultural traditions. Such is the case with the bottles of port (strong wine of Portuguese origin) which are sold especially as offerings for the Andean Earth goddess Pachamama. Some of those bottles feature a triskelion on their label, a symbol of the brand which makes them. This symbol, with early Mediterranean origins, has thus been integrated by the Quechua-speaking descendants of the Inca into their folk cosmology as part of the traditional mesa or despacho (also alternatively known as a waxt’a or k’oa in Quechua), or table of offerings. 

As you continue your exploration of the markets, other forms of syncretism will stand out. Japanese maneki-neko, or “beckoning cats”, greet you at businesses without Asian proprietors or employees. You may even see a sculpture of a Chinese jin chan, or “money toad”, with an Ekeko, mixing the feng shui of Chinese immigrants with the pre-Columbian god of the Aymara people. The Ekeko, for its part, was incorporated into wider Incan belief as the Aymara were incorporated into the Incan Empire. In the Andes, like in ancient Rome, the rule of thumb has always been the same: the integration of diverse religious expressions. Also like ancient Rome, Incan religion relied on the principle of do ut des, or reciprocity between mortals and divinities. This principle was known to the Incans as ayni, or harmony, and depicted the cosmos as a great balancing act of reciprocation.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) No “glass”, or mirror, is darker than the wall of a mine. Yet for centuries, in all corners of the world, miners have looked into those dark walls and seen themselves reflected: as mythical creatures such as the feared and venerated tommyknockers of US mines, and perhaps even as the inverse handprints touching us back from the other side of the rock at Lascaux. We look into the void of stone for a reflection because it is out of stone that we begin to shape civilization, our great retort to nature. We shape our will and our image into it, as though they were contained within it all along… maybe before we even arrived on the scene. One such figure which inhabits the dark stone interiors of the Andes is known as the Muqui or Muki, guardian of the mines.

The Muqui today is part of a chorus of duendes, or goblins, which collectively represent another act of syncretism. This time it was an act of syncretism between Incan divinities and European myths. The duendes you find in Cusco’s markets wear their European inheritance on their surface, closely resembling their Iberian equivalents in Spain or Portugal. Looking more like a leprechaun or something from the modern fantasy genre, today’s commercially traded Peruvian duende is often made from resin. It is often no taller than 10 centimeters. There are male and female varieties, and they often wear pointy hats and have oversized, barefoot feet. The duende’s purchaser will name it, then perhaps put a cigarette in his lips or surround him with coins while leaving him to sit on a shelf or counter of their home or business. In this way, the duende protects the space. 

These duendes may easily be mistaken for European duendes. These spirits in Iberia were depicted as gnomish guardians of homesteads and workplaces, and they date back to the pre-Islamic Visigothic Kingdom. The name “duende” derives from dueño de casa in Spanish, or “master of the house”, indicating a derivation in concept from the Nordic tomte. The Nordic iterations also command respect from a house or workplace’s occupants in exchange for protection. They are sometimes said to be the spirits of the first deceased occupants of a place, and it is traditionally advised that any new places without a tomte acquire one. Likewise today, in the Andes, you may see people buying and naming a duende for a space that does not yet have one. Yet below the surface, there is a very different understanding at work in the Andean “duende”.

In conversation, people will admit to the presence of both good, angelic spirits in their midsts as well as bad ones. They may admit to seeing some of these different creatures in the wild, perhaps disappearing into rocks or trees. These may be called duendes or shapis, depending on the kind of connections they have with humans and the world around them. They may be the young Ichic Ollco or the elderly Auquillo/Jirca. They may be the bad Chullachaqui or the good Ekeko/Equeco. Some people may even admit to sacrifices of children which took place to appease some spirits. Child sacrifice is known to have taken place prior to Spanish conquest. In 2016 the remains of 140 children and 200 llamas were found close to the Chimú kingdom capital of Chan Chan on the northern Peruvian coast. The sacrificial victims had had their chests cut open, likely to have their hearts removed. In 2019 the remains of 227 children were found at another Chimú site in Huanchaco, sacrifices made to the moon god Shi in response to heavy rains brought on by the El Niño weather phenomenon. It is believed that these sacrifices took place before the Chimú kingdom was conquered by the Incas in 1475. Yet stories of child sacrifice persist.

In 2017 a story emerged in Bolivia of alleged child sacrifice. The body of a 30-34 week old baby had been found covered in alcohol and coca leaves between rocks at the foot of the Tata Sabaya volcano… its name meaning “Father Devil” in local Quechua. Then, in 2018, the parents of a missing 8-year-old boy named Jhoel Condori from Aucapata, Bolivia notified authorities that their son had been kidnapped by miners and given as an offering to appease the deity of the Cosmipata mine in order that more gold be extracted. That deity is known by the name Tío, Spanish for “uncle”. Tío is a common name for mine deities in Bolivia, although Jesuit missionary Bernabé Cobo noted in 1533 that the Indigenous languages of the region possessed no [d] sound in their phonetics, and so pronounced dios (“god”) as “tios”. It is also similar to Tiw in the Uru language, a name for a divine mine protector dating back to pre-Incan civilization in and around Lake Titicaca.

Thus Tío, another name for the Muqui, sets itself apart from the duendes of the urban market in one very important sense. Human sacrifice or not, this divinity claims a form of tribute that goes beyond coins and a place on a shelf. When three miners died from a cave-in in Secocha, Peru in 2017, locals told media sources that they interpreted this and other recent events as a sign that an offering was due to the mine’s chinchilicos, a name that coexists in that region with the name Muqui. Yet other Andean mining communities have other names. As Rosa Carrasco Ligarda explains, “the Muqui name is commuted with other appellations in relation to the place, the valuation of the year and affectivity.” Therefore in Potosí, Bolivia one may hear, alongside Tío, otorongo or the Aymara word anchonchu, a “name for things that live in caves and humid places” used to describe a mine deity in pre-Columbian days related to the Uru Tiw, and likely related to the mythical vampire-like Bolivian creature, Abchanchu. In Puno, in the southeast of Peru, one may hear juanikillo or awichita, while on the opposite side of the country in the northern highland city of Cajamarcaone hears jusshi

Other appellatives applied to the deity include supay and tayta, resulting in varieties such as supay muqui, muqui supay, or tayta muqui. Supay, in Quechua and Aymara, is the name of the god of the underworld, or Ukhu Pacha. Tayta, meaning “father”, alludes to their hierarchy of spirits over which Supay rules. One of the three spheres within Incan cosmology, Ukhu Pacha displays the all-important concept of ayni. In one sense it is the realm of death, and thus the dark god Supay, whose name has evolved into a synonym for “devil”. In another sense, it is the realm of life – agriculture, fertility – and is associated with Pachamama. “Ores grew like potatoes in the ground,” notes historian Kendall W. Brown in his book A History of Mining in Latin America. Such ores, once extracted, could form weapons that could take the lives that potatoes had nourished. They could also adorn the members of the human hierarchy with the implicit endorsement of this underworld. 

The Muqui both is and is not Supay. Like the diablada dances of the Andes, which date back to the pre-Incan Uru civilization, the incorporation of Supay into European Christian cosmology remains incomplete. The Andean “Devil” remains more venerated and at times ambivalent than the figure of Satan traditionally is in other iterations of the Abrahamic religions, representing a cosmological duality not seen in the West since the decline of Manichaeism in the 4th century and the rise of Neoplatonism in the Christian Church. This duality persists in the Andes today in the Carnaval de Oruro in Bolivia, when the local Tío Supay is celebrated along with – but never beside – the Virgin Mary. Aside from taking the symbolic form of the diabladas in their dances (for a musical reference, see “Diablada ‘Tío Uru’” recorded by Banda Continental), the Tío never leaves the mine.

While the mother of Christ has come to stand-in in part for Pachamama in the form of the Virgin of the Mineshaft, her binary opposite remains beyond articulation in Christian terms. In such communities, it is generally acknowledged that the Tío or Muqui is in charge below the surface, regardless of circumstances above ground. Brown quotes a Bolivian miner on this point: “God is in his glory, Pachamama is in the earth, and the Tío is there below with us in the mines.” In yet another quote from a miner, the Virgin of the Mineshaft herself shares in this darker world of Ukhu Pacha: “The Virgin is very bad. Each Sunday we take candles to illuminate her niche. The Virgin could eat us.” The ambivalence of the Incan gods persists, thrusting ayni back into the center.

The greatest historiographical problem with concretely establishing continuity between the Incan Supay and the modern Muqui is the nature of the mining industry itself, from at least Spanish conquest onwards. Up to the present day, both large legal operations and the illegal mining industry dislocate large populations. Sometimes this has been done intentionally, as Brown illustrated with the case of managers working for Bolivian industrialist Simón Iturri Patiño (the “Andean Rockefeller”, who himself was said to make offerings to the deity throughout his life) bringing workers from distant climes into his mines rather than local Aymara-speakers who would likely return home as soon as conditions proved unfavorable. Thus, imposition and integration of Christianity aside, geographical and social disruption obfuscate the precise genealogy of today’s mine deities. Even pre-Columbian times, the Incan policy of forced migration of conquered peoples called mitma was employed to alienate mine workers from their communities. The Muquiyauyo district in the Jauja Province, in fact, likely gets its name from conquered Yauyos who were put to work in the mines beside the Muqui some 100 kilometers or more away from their homes.

This, along with the original geographic diversity implicit in the Incan empire, means that it should come as no surprise the Muqui has so many names. Along with its many names are its many divergent descriptions and distinct local rituals. Most rituals feature the same kinds of offerings: cigarettes, coca leaves, liquor, Florida Water, llama fetuses (sullu), and other things. Other offerings which were also documented by the Spanish include colorful powders, possibly represented today in the form of the polychromatic confetti and streamers which are placed around the Muqui. Among these powders is a yellow one known as caruamuqui (possibly a mixture of pyrite and orpiment, among other things), giving us one of the potential etymologies for the Muqui’s name. A compound word, the meaning for the –muqui ending has been lost. In Aymara, however, muk’i is said to mean “wet”. 

In Cusco Quechua muki means “asphyxiation” or “suffocation”, while in Ancash Quechua it means “red earth”. It is possible that all these names served overlapping purposes when christening the same class of deities across the diverse cultural landscape. In any case, caruamuqui is still used in some ceremonies meant to cure muquihuayra, or “Muqui wind”… the name for illnesses caused by gaseous emanations from the mine, an industry hazard typically referred to in English as damps. Andean miners call them jumpes, or “sweats”. They say they are caused by the Muqui’s breath, and have eyes to hunt down their prey. In some accounts, they are the souls of dead miners whose bodies could never be recovered. Hazards typical of a particular sort of human endeavor are naturally universal, as are much of their symbolisms.

As similar as each Muqui or Tío appears to others, and as much as they all may be situated within the same cosmological space, each is but one local representative of the greater mythological hierarchy of the land. Duendes, in fact, assumed the space of Incan huacas, venerated objects or locations animated by spirits, or apus. Mountains in particular may be home to important apus known as achachilas, the spirits of remote ancestors. And, like any local shrine in Catholicism, certain customs come to bear on certain locations, despite the universality which each shrine symbolically taps into. Two related ceremonies common in Bolivia, where the name Tío prevails, are ch’alla and k’araku. Ch’alla is typically performed by miners when arriving to work on Tuesdays and Fridays, particularly in August and during Carnival. It takes the form of a courtesy call made in order to maintain the proper reciprocity between the Tío and the miners. Brown provides us with a miner’s testimony describing an offering ritual performed in Oruro:

We begin to ch’alla in the working areas within the mine. We bring in banners, confetti and paper streamers, all those things. First we begin with the Tío. We put a cigarette in his mouth. After this we scatter the alcohol on the ground for the Pachamama. I and my partner do it. We are “politicos,” a kind of team. We scatter the alcohol and then give some to the Tío. Then we take out our coca and begin to chew, and we smoke. We serve liquor from the bottles each of us brings in. We light the Tío’s cigarette, and we say, “Tío, help us in our work. Don’t let any accidents happen.” We do not kneel before him as we would before a saint, because that would be sacrilegious. Then everyone begins to get drunk. We begin to talk about our work, about the sacrifice that we make. When this is finished, we wind the streamers around the neck of the Tío. We prepare our mesas [tables with offerings of herbs, a llama fetus, cakes depicting monsters or desired goods, which the miners burn before the Tío]. After some time, we say, “Let’s go.” Some have to carry the others out if they are drunk.

As this account suggests, the Tío’s world is seen as distinct from the “religious” world, properly speaking. The meaning of “religion” itself has been perverted here. What is “religious” and “sacrilegious” follows clearly colonial lines, where above ground the work of saving souls held sway and below ground the work of extracting riches. Miners still avoid mentioning the Christian God or saints while in the mine, and hold certain superstitions regarding the use of the pickaxe for its resemblance to the cross. In a very real sense, the Spanish and the Incan themselves became a duality subject to the principle of ayni.

Depiction of a chakana, or “incan cross”, and sulla, dried llama fetus

K’araku is a ceremony held during Carnival, in August, or after a mining accident. It involves the sacrifice of adult llamas at the entrance to the mine. The llama’s heart may be removed and buried at the Tío’s feet (or at a place designated as his ”eye”)– or, failing that, a dried llama fetus. Miners may also spread the blood of the llamas on the entrance, over tools and machines, and on the surface of active veins. Miners will then leave the mine to feast on the llama while the deity eats his offering in private. In this way, it is hoped, a reciprocal relationship with the mine’s guardian can be strengthened, and all-important ayni can be maintained. It is a constant struggle, however. The Tío or Muqui is never satiated, and if he isn’t offered blood he will take it from the miners themselves. As the song “Minero Potosino” says, “The land will drink you, along with Carnival”. Ayni will be achieved, one way or another. 

And woe unto the miner who believes that such a balance can be swung to his greater advantage by making an individual pact with the Muqui. While the Muqui may promise to lead a miner to a new vein in exchange for a share of the wealth there, the Muqui will generally make out in the end with the miner’s life. It is said that the Muqui knows whether a miner is honest, but doesn’t care. The Muqui is a self-interested being, at its core, which is the essence of the miner’s neverending quest for reciprocity with him. Carmen Salazar-Soler has documented the following story of the Muqui’s treachery:

There was a man who got hired. He was desperate because he couldn’t find anything […]. One day he entered the mine; While they were resting, he was chewing his coca, Muqui appeared to him with his brilliant light and his illuminating eyes and he said to him: “Hey, what little thing do you want?” The man told him the vein is not enough. Tayta Muqui told him to bring an arroba [0.5kg] of coca, alcohol and cigarettes and that when he returned the vein would be advanced. […] On the way back there was pure ore without clearing, piled up ready to be loaded. Later he told him that in exchange for ore he had to give a person’s life, the man was scared but had to accept how helpless he was. In two years he had to fulfill his part, I don’t know what will have happened. He sets the years and then he has to give his life in exchange. Others do not give their life but offer the life of their father or mother (T.Q.).

Yet not fulfilling a pact within the mine can also lead to kutincha, an illness (associated with changes in temperature in the mines) that the Muqui uses to punish miners’ transgressions. A sufferer of kutincha experiences progressively worsening fatigue, dizziness, and dehydration. A traditional specialist usually recommends that the sufferer begin his treatment by completing whatever pact he had yet to fulfill his part of. Besides this vengeful streak for broken words, the Muqui sometimes shows sympathy for miners by warning them of impending collapses and other dangers. His fickleness governs the mine, as he may move a vein or make a new one appear with little to no apparent reason for doing so. Transporting ore through the solid rock of the mountain on a llama’s back, he may carry away a vein once discovered and hide it. He may cause accidents or he may prevent them, all depending on his mood. He may even clasp the legs of a miner to prevent him from running away before a dynamite explosion. 

The Muqui is playful, too. A lot of his interactions with miners seem to be the result of him amusing himself: dropping pebbles on heads (especially if they fall asleep), making noises, stealing tools. The Muqui is even said to be fond of playing with children, and can communicate in dreams. This concept of the Muqui shows in the song “El Muki” by Chalena Vásquez, a nostalgic reverie of a migrant:

The duende of the high grounds went

down to the seashore

carrying in his pocket nuggets of a

thousand colors – 

nuggets of ore.

The Muqui of the high grounds is

missed in the city

his memory goes on singing secrets

of stone and moon —

cornfield secrets.

This sky is very sad, this sea is very

sad. 

Where were the colors on this winter

evening?

Suddenly – the Muqui dancing,

spreading across the horizon

nuggets of a thousand colors…

Another trait often attributed to the Muqui is a voracious sexual appetite. Women have been banned in places like Puno and Huancavelica, Peru from entering the mines (or at least their lower levels) owing to the belief that the Muqui will rape them. A complimentary tale to this one, recorded by Salazar-Soler, is that the “mine is female, she is Pachamama, she gets jealous when another woman enters the mine.” An exaggerated embodiment of masculinity, miners say the Muqui has an extremely long penis which he usually wraps around his waist, but which at times may become unraveled and be left stretched behind him through whichever galleries he has recently passed. Those entering the mine are advised to watch for the Muqui’s penis, as stepping on it may enrage him and earn the miners his wrath. These sexual tales are also a way of depicting ayni, and take their place alongside other figures in the Andes. When a person commits incest they wake up as a Qarqarya/Jarjacha, a horrific multi-headed llama or llama-human hybrid. Then there is the cannibalistic Pishtaku, often depicted as a white man, himself associated with incest. 

In “La viuda y el hijo del Soq’a Machu” (1973), Jorge Flores Ochoa tells us the story of a 35-year-old widow from near Cusco. She was forbidden by her village from remarrying – a woman’s reproduction was seen as intrinsically connected to natural forces, and as such, to the village’s productivity. Having become pregnant, she announced to her village that it was the result of a trick played on her by a Soq’a Machu, or a bad spirit of a mummy. In their book, Kay Pacha (1976), Bernabé Condori and Rosalind Gow describe the Soq’a Machu as just one “devil” child of the Earth who, along with the Anchanchu, “know how to walk behind her. […] They live more in water, in springs, and on rocks. They cannot live on land”. A pregnancy caused by Soq’a Machu is thus unable to be brought to full gestation.  The pregnancy was therefore terminated with the consent of the village. With minimal imagination, we can see how such mythologizing of sexual matters not only contributed to ayni in a metaphysical sense but to concrete social harmony.

If the Muqui becomes distracted and a miner can capture him. If this happens then the Muqui may be put to work for the miner, or else some other bargain may be negotiated. But the chances of that happening are slim, as the Muqui normally manages to keep miners disoriented, particularly at night. He can take on the form of an animal or even, it is said, a woman or white man. He may even take the form of toads or tadpoles inside puddles. A person entering the mine is also cautioned to avoid stepping in puddles inside the mine, which are sometimes taken for the eyes of the Muqui (in other cases, the “eye” of the Muqui is a specific location within the mine). An account from Salazar-Soler taken from one miner working overnight describes such a transformation and the general condition of disorientation that the miner experiences:

When I got to the mine; I couldn’t get used to the night shift because it was very cold and work gets heavier at night. People eat at seven at night and don’t eat until three in the morning, although they give us half an hour to picchar [chew coca], how will it be? People are also afraid that the souls of the dead and the Tayta Muquí will come out. Some people say that he comes out at night: when a person is alone, he comes through the water, like toads, and they want to pull you in. That is why some do not want to work at night. And, if it happens that the Tayta behaves nicely and shows me a vein, yes I do want to meet [the Muqui]. Besides, it seems that he still appears during the day, because here in the tunnel, it’s always night. Of course, one suffers on the night shift because they work until three in the morning. Late, cold, they’re just coming out of work with a warm body, illnesses just take over, and besides, in the morning one can’t rest well because the children are playing in the room and the woman is doing her work. Difficult is work at night for the person that arrives; You have to learn to be like an owl with your eyes open at night, too (G. C.).

As you keep your eyes open for the different forms and behaviors of the Muqui, you may keep in mind how he appears in his physical representation at the shrine inside your mine. Many of these form him out of stone, and in fact in Huancavelica and Oyón, Peru, they say his body is made of ores. He may have two horns on his head which he uses to break rock and pointed ears that may resemble a llama’s. He usually will wear at least some implements of the mining trade. Today rubber or leather boots and a flashlight are common, while they may also carry vestiges of the mining past such as carbide lamps and vicuña ponchos. He may also take the aspect of another profession, such as a soldier or firefighter. He may be clothed in gold or red, or in green moss. He may be barefoot, or he may wear spurs that jingle as he lurks. Accounts of his body agree that it is inharmonious. 

Some who claim to have seen him walking in the mine say he is small and stocky, sometimes without a neck. Some say he has a white and red face, a beard, white hair. In Huancavelica they say his eyes glow red, and his face bears metallic reflections. He has a deep, hoarse voice. Other accounts say he carries a lantern, that he has legs like a bird or like a deer, that his feet or legs may point backward, but that they are always covered by his clothes. Inside of the mines, at least, the Muqui retains his pre-Colombian qualities of terror, awe, and diversity, despite often being incorporated above ground into the imported aesthetic of the duende.

According to the US Department of Commerce, mining accounts for 60% of Peru’s exports today, with approximately 200 current (legal) mining operations and more planned for the future. The 2016 Minerals Yearbook from the US Geological Survey describes Peru as “among the world’s leading producers of many nonfuel minerals and base metals”, ranking as the world’s second-largest producer of silver, copper, and zinc, fourth in molybdenum and lead, fifth in tin, and sixth in gold. The majority of these mining operations are privately owned, and the market enjoys sustained growth from foreign investment – all contributing to the sense, expressed often on the political left, that Andean miners are victims of neocolonial-neoliberal exploitation. The ascension of Pedro Castillo to Peru’s presidency under the threat of nationalizing the mining industry speaks to this. The reality, however, is that such interpretations don’t tell half the story.

Kintu, three coca leaves used in offerings to symbolize the three pachas or worlds of existence

According to the Instituto Peruano de Economía, mining companies in Peru pay 47.07% of their earnings to the state (higher than most other major mining countries), and pay workers wages 3.8% higher than in other major mining markets. The impression that many Andeans have that their region is the source of harsh exploitation in the name of resource extraction is true, but that picture must necessarily include government corruption. Peru’s diverse mineral resources amounted to $36.8 billion in exports in 2016, accounting for 10% of its GDP and 15-20% of government revenue, acquired through concessions from companies made in the name of responding to popular unrest. That unrest, cloaked as much in nationalist as socialist rhetoric, evades the most pressing question: Why does the wealth accrued by the Peruvian state not translate into better lives for miners? Well, to take a page from the playbook of Simón Iturri Patiño and the Incan mitma: improving conditions above ground might make miners leave the mines, but keeping them alienated from the fruits of their labors and moving in search of work will ensure that the industry operates optimally for its owners.

Beyond that, it was estimated in 2012 that 22% of all gold exported from Peru came from illegal mining operations, worth $1.8 billion annually – more than the market in narcotics. These illegal operations contribute to problems of social dislocation, human trafficking, child prostitution, environmental distruction, and health crises. Illegal mining operations are more likely to use cheap but hazardous materials like mercury, resulting in neurological problems and birth defects. In the huayno song “El Muki”, sung by Los Maqtas of Huancavelica, the deity is invoked as both “Muqui of ore” and “Muqui of mercury”. The reason could not be clearer.

Cristóbal de Molina, in his Relación de las fábulas y ritos de los incas (“Account of the Fables and Rites of the Incas”, 1573) wrote: “Many preachers came after the Indians […] preaching this resurrection of the huacas, they were walking through the air dry and starving because the Indians no longer sacrificed to them.” In terms of ayni, it seems that some believe that a permanent imbalance has been caused by the Spanish conquest. The huacas, now converted into duendes, have been left to starve and wander aimlessly and often nameless. Daniel Cossios tells us in Breve bestiario peruano (2004), “Several creatures must have taken the name of duende from the arrival of Europeans to the new continent. The foreigners, not knowing the real names or the nature of these beings, undoubtedly ended up giving them that name.” 

Compounding the situation, “today, many of the old names seem to have died out, and it is quite likely that these creatures have borrowed not only the name, but also the appearance and other characteristics of the imported goblins.” This namelessness – a broken continuity with the past – makes the science of identifying agency more obscure. An angry deity in an Andean mine becomes a whitewashed European troll in the urban market, just as the sufferings and failings of the Indigenous peoples and their beliefs become happy and mystical caricatures on display for foreigners who come in search of “Pachamama” and ayahuasca retreats. In most cases, the very brokenness of the Andean cosmology caused by the subjugation of Incan society is mistaken for mysticism. Today the real Andean cosmology is one that asks “what does this mean for us, today, materially speaking?” at least as much as it asks “what has been lost to time?”

Today the Muqui gives its name to Red Muqui, an organization made in 2003 out of “a series of human rights and environmental institutions [dedicated] to advising and accompanying communities and populations that live in mining areas in the defense and promotion of their rights.” The Muqui has also featured in a number of books, including retellings for children and classics of national literature such as El retoño by Julián Huanay. Other books in which he makes an appearance are El prefecto by César Pérez Arauco and Madre cerreña by Ricardo Jurado Castro. In the ’70s there was even a comic made by a worker in a mining settlement, Trato con el Muqui by Elías Zenteno. There does appear to be a literary trend in favor of sanitization for childhood consumption, however much this may conflict with tales of the Muqui inherited by children in mining regions.

Since 2013, the very popular music video directed by Ian Pons Jewell of “La La La” by British artists Naughty Boy and Sam Smith features the Tío in Bolivia, and has brought new (though doubtfully sustained) international attention to Andean mining and its myths. The Bolivian metal band Nación released an album entitled El Tío in 2017, its cover featuring a depiction of its namesake authentic to the mines. Yet more popular among Andean audiences is the cumbia song “Muqui Muqui”, which features no direct lyrical relation to the Muqui besides his name (the chicha version by Sonido 2000 is most notable). Places like Muquillanqui (“Muqui’s sandle”) and Muquiyauyo still bare his name, and at times even the generic duende dolls are referred to as “muquis”, perhaps thereby making them more intriguing.  

The heterogeneity of the Muqui is overdetermined; there are many conflicting reasons for its lack of uniformity. We could say the same, by extension, of the whole of Andean folklore. This state of affairs means that the stories and traditions of the people there are ripe for documentation. Documentation which can allow a better understanding not only for outsiders, but for the people themselves – broadly speaking – with the mediation of outside forces tampered momentarily. As Brown has noted, rituals such as the ch’alla have become events for labor organizing: “Such rituals bound the workers together in cosmological and vocational solidarity to strengthen their unions.” This specific observation may be limited to legal, unionizable mining communities. But, extended further, this shows that rather than being signs of backwards superstition, such traditions may form the best possible basis for breaking patterns of behavior that do not work in the benefit of the community of believers; practices like mercury use, human trafficking, etc. Re-establishing, or even re-inventing continuity with the past and across occupational and cultural landscapes helps make the language of these traditions more articulate. Making this happen, though, may require that the Muqui be brought out into the light – no small sacrifice, but at least for one day. 

Further reading:

Kendall W. Brown. A History of Mining in Latin America: From the Colonial Era to the Present. 2012. University of New Mexico Press.

Carmen Salazar-Soler. Supay Muqui, dios del socavón: vida y mentalidades mineras. 2006. Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú.

Rosa Carrasco Ligarda. “Palabras, creencias y ritos relacionados con el muqui, el duende de las minas.” Consensus, 21(2), 25–37. 2016. Universidad Femenina del Sagrado Corazón. https://doi.org/10.33539/consensus.2016.v21n2.385

*Thanks to Sara (human19840) for help with the Quechua translation

__________________

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

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