A three-fold interpretation of the "mbói jagua" snake


* Tres interpretaciones para la serpiente "mbói jagua"

* Três interpretações para a serpente "mbói jagua"

Apparently there is no consensus on how the Paraguayan term “mbói jagua” should be applied, if for a real animal or a mythological animal. However, one must understand that to the Guaraní Indians the boundary between the real and the imaginary was probably too vague. A cultural exchange with other tribes, from Brazil, which should be taken into account, could have added to this.

A snake does not recognize political boundaries between countries. Nor does it recognize the cultural differences between the different peoples who have observed or studied it. It is always the same animal, albeit seen through different colored glasses. So it is no surprise that different people end up describing it differently.


The "Castilian-Guaraní, Guaraní-Castilian Dictionary" of father Antonio Guasch and father Diego Ortíz, 1996 edition ("Antonio Guasch" Center for Paraguayan Studies, Asunción, 2008 reprint), explains that the "mbói jagua", which its literal translation would be "dog snake", is a boa. The "Guaraní- Spanish, Spanish-Guaraní Dictionary" by Natalia Krivoshein de Canese and Feliciano Acosta Alcaraz (Higher Institute for Tongues, Asunción National University, Asunción, 2000), states that it is a constrictor snake, specifically a giant boa. The "New Great Castilian-Guaraní Dictionary" by Antonio Ortíz Mayans (Buenos Aires University Press, Buenos Aires, 1980, and United Publishing Houses of Paraguay [EUDEPA], Asunción, 1990), determines that it is a constrictor but of the viper family (?), which literally would mean that it is venomous. The "Guaraní-Castilian Encyclopedia of Natural Sciences and Paraguayan Knowledges", by physician Carlos Gatti (New Art, publishers, Asunción, 1985), gives the most detailed definition and in my opinion the most striking, calling it "Eunectes murinus", but it considers that it also applies to the "Eunectes notaeus". Then he makes a very good description of the physical characteristics and habits of these two "Eunectes", but ignores the fact that the "notaeus" (yellow anaconda) is smaller than the "murinus" (green anaconda). The first one inhabits the Paraguay, the Amazon and the Orinoco rivers basins. The second one is a species related to the previous and very similar to it, but living only in the Paraguay River basin.

Another reference, kindly provided by a reader, is by Mariano Antonio Molas, in his “Historical overview of the old Province of Paraguay”, annotated by Ángel Carranza (published posthumously in "The Journal of Buenos Aires", Volumes 9 through 15, Press of May, Buenos Aires, 1866-1868. Also by Editions Nizza, Asunción, 1957). In the part about snakes the book recalls that “the largest and most particular, is the one called Mboi-yaguá in Guaraní, for the likeness of the head to the dog's; deformedly thick, and long from seven to fourteen [Spanish] rods [6,25 m to 12,5 m].” On its population he points out that “it is not abundant and it breeds in the territory of Icuamandiyú, Curuguatí and Concepción and the rivers Jejuí, Aguai, Apa and other streams.”

On the other hand, some officials of the Museum of Natural and Indigenous History and Herbarium, of the City of Asunción, ponder a thesis that the word “jagua” in the name would have its origin in nothing but the similarity of the spots of these snakes with the spots of the jaguarete ("Panthera onca").


"The Great Guaraní-Spanish, Spanish-Guaraní Dictionary" of Olga Troxler Vda. de Maldonado (Pegasus, Asunción, 2004) has an opposite definition but no less correct: it tells us that people thought its head was like a dog's, and even that could bark, scaring its pursuers and making them flee. It is a giant anaconda that could swallow its prey in one piece and digest it for an extended period of time, discarding the bones afterwards. It is a viper (a word that would mean it would be venomous) that eats human beings and other animals. It clarifies that it is the Guaraní version of the feathered serpent of the Maya. This dictionary is also giving the correct definition of "kuriju": while the others are simply defining it as boa, this displays in a picture that the term can be used for boas [in Paraguay the boa constrictor] or anacondas [in Paraguay the yellow anaconda].

The different definition for "mbói jagua" that gives this dictionary has the support of a text by León Cadogan that appears in the book “Paraguay: ecological essays”, edited by Richard Gorham (Academy of the Arts and Sciences of The Americas, Miami, 1973). In chapter 9, titled “Some plants and animals in Guaraní and Guayakí mythology”, Cadogan illustrates us that each species of animal on earth has a monstrous prototype, also made of flesh and bones, living in the densest part of the forest and in the remotest mountain. Each monster is called by the name of the species which is the prototype of, followed by the postfix “jagua”, a word that was applied to common animals like dogs and jaguaretes (jaguars) and meaning "roaring". This author explains that a deep belief of these ethnic groups about Nature is that real animals have eternal counterparts, i.e., they are all flesh and bones manifestations of spiritual beings. This definition is echoed in the Judeo-Christian view that human beings were made in the image and likeness of God, though imperfect. Cadogan lists several examples, and explains that this worldview was widely accepted among indigenous peoples, giving as folk examples the "Mbói-jagua" (monstrous water snake) and the "Teju-jagua" (monstrous iguana, or some kind of dragon).

Another author who agrees with this definition is Eloy Fariña Núñez (1885-1929), writer of the book “Guaraní myths” (Mariano Pastor Graphical Workshops, Buenos Aires, 1926). When the topic of the mythical hidden city of “El dorado” comes about, he apparently acts mystified: “The imagination is lost in conjectures when it tries to lift the veil lain on ‘Mba’e vera guasu’ [the thing that shines greatly]. Will the mystery of this invisible, radiant Guaraní city be decoded someday? Possibly, although it is feared that it will remain hidden far away in the dark and impenetrable jungle of tradition, legend and myth, from where the howling ‘Mboi jagua’, the garrulous ‘Mboi parrot’ and the monstrous ‘Moñái’ came from.”


Since speculation is free, I would like to note that in Brazil the green anaconda is called "sucuri", and they talk of a monstrous version called "sucurujú" or "sucuriju". We must await the help of linguists in order to know whether there is a relationship between the words "sucuriju" and "kuriju". Mixing things even more, is there any parallel between what Dr. Gatti informed, that the two "Eunectes" cited are so similar that they can both be called "mbói jagua" (though in Dr. Norman Scott's experience, the Paraguayan scientific community and all of the campesinos that he have talked to clearly distinguish between the "kuriju" ("Eunectes notaeus") of western wet Chaco habitats and the larger "mbói jagua" ("Eunectes murinus"), now rarely found in some of the large eastern tributaries of the Río Paraguay (Aquidabán, Jeju Guazú, etc.). Their ranges may narrowly overlap in western San Pedro Department, but there are no definite records documenting this. Personal communication, 21 January 2013), and the near-coincidence between the words "sucuriju" (“monstrous” "Eunectes murinus") and "kuriju" ("Eunectes notaeus")? Would not Paraguayans and Brazilians be trying to talk of basically one big snake but with different degrees of monstrosity? The following stories perhaps could be the gray area somewhere between the "Mbói jagua" of mythology and the "mbói jagua" of the real world:

In 1906, explorer Percy H. Fawcett (1867-disappeared 1925), officer of the British Royal Engineers, was commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society to map the rivers Abunã and Acre, on the boundary between Bolivia and Brazil. In his memoirs of these expeditions (published posthumously in "Exploration Fawcett", edited and decorated by his son Brian Fawcett, Hutchinson, London, 1953), he recorded the following incident: “We were drifting easily along on the sluggish current not far below the confluence of tigor and the Rio Negro when almost under the bow of the igarit’e [boat] there appeared a triangular head and several feet of undulating body. It was a giant anaconda. I sprang for my rifle as the creature began to make its way up the bank, and hardly waiting to aim, smashed a .44 soft-nosed bullet into its spine, ten feet [3 m] below the wicked head. At once there was a flurry of foam, and several heavy thumps against the boat's keel, shaking us as though we had run on a snag”.

“We stepped ashore and approached the creature with caution. As far as it was possible to measure, a length of 45 feet [14 m] lay out of the water and 17 feet [5 m] lay in the water, making it a total length of 62 feet [19 m]. Its body was not thick, not more than 12 inches [30 cm] in diameter, but it had probably been long without food.”

Below, he finishes off: “The Brazilian Boundary Commission told me of one killed in the Rio Paraguay exceeding eighty feet [24 m] in length!”

Algot Lange narrated in his book “In the Amazon jungle: adventures in remote parts of the Upper Amazon River, including a sojourn among Cannibal Indians” (G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1912), that he had killed a giant anaconda, “sucurujú” to the Indians, with his 9 mm Luger automatic pistol, and then skinned it. Lange apparently made a discourse: “‘Men,’ I said, ‘here am I on this the 29th day of July, 1910, standing before a snake-skin the size of which is wonderful. When I return to my people in the United States of America, and tell them that I have seen and killed a boa-constrictor [actually an Eunectes murinus] nearly eighteen meters in length, they will laugh and call me a man with a bad tongue.’”. Below he provides a clue to the whereabouts of his alleged proof: “We brought the skin to headquarters, where I prepared it with arsenical soap and boxed it for later shipment to New York.”

Although very detailed, these stories of giant anacondas are still not accepted by the scientific community. A final story illustrates very well the reasons: in the early years of the last century the U. S. president Theodore Roosevelt, an avid naturalist, donated to his friend William Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoo, in New York City, the sum of US$1,000 to be offered to the first person who gets them a snake (alive and in good health, with all permits and paperwork) longer than 9 meters. The jackpot is now at US$50,000, but still no winner.

If the white man can imagine such beasts, for sure the Indians also could. So, little by little, reality would have been distorted into myth and then this myth would have begun to distort reality.

Aldo Loup.

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First published in ABC Color, on 20 January 2008. Photograph: Maps to illustrate a paper on explorations and boundary surveys in Bolivia, by Major [later Colonel] Percy Harrison Fawcett, Royal Army (retired). In the lower right corner is the city of Corumba, Brazil, on the Paraguay River. At the top left are the Acre and Abunã rivers. This last area is enlarged in the box below: "Tigor" would be the Arroyo El Tigre and the "Rio Negro" would be the Arroyo Preto, and at the right of them, on the River Abunã, would be the place where supposedly Percy Fawcett found an anaconda of incredible 19 meters long. Credit: The Geographical Journal, 1910. Published by the Royal Geographical Society, London, UK. The original article that accompanies the maps is "Explorations in Bolivia", by Major [later Colonel] Percy Harrison Fawcett, Royal Army (retired), The Geographical Journal, Volume 35, Number 5, May 1910, from page 513 to page 532. Digital image file from Gallaudet University, via Emmanouil Lalaios / The Great Web of Percy Harrison Fawcett, http://www.phfawcettsweb.org. Maps reproduced here with permission from John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.