The intriguing story of Curupira

Children’s literature… So many controversies can arise from it. But let’s face it, they are the first narratives that we hear as human beings, and so they help shape the stories through which we will see the world. Thus, questions like what we expose children to, the kinds of content and characters, matter!

In Brazil, the importance of children’s literature is often stressed by the importance put on folkloric tales. And today, I would like to talk to you about one story in specific: Curupira. He is a boy with ginger hair and feet turned backwards. He protects the forest from hunters who try to take advantage of nature. Although the story originated – so far as we can tell – from the Tupi-guarani native tribe, the story no longer belongs uniquely to Indigenous tribes. Five hundred years after Europeans have found Brazil, the Native and Colonizer are present in an almost indistinguishable mix. National characters are, usually, a symbol of this diversity. And Curupira beautifully represents the duality between Native and Colonizer. Upon arrival in the native land, the Europeans misrepresented the character and transformed a foundational myth into a simple folk tale.

Curupira é um menino índio

The narrative usually presents a ginger-haired boy barely wearing any clothes, whose goal is to protect the forest from the hunters. The character, however, is a fluid figure. He has taken many shapes and forms – not uncommon to the traditions of oral cultures. Despite the many versions of the story within different native tribes, there are some common features among them that form the essence of Curupira. Indeed, he is always in the body of a boy. That one is a given, as the etymology of the name Curupira in nheengatu means the body of a boy. He also always has a misleading personality and produces some kind of noise – a whistle or a scream – that bewilders people.

Curupira is believed to be a character present in native culture as a myth that explains missing people or getting lost in the woods. Myths are crucial to cultures and are part of their communities’ identity. A pathway through the woods for Indigenous people would be accompanied by rites and offerings to Curupira so the hunters could make a safe passage. The native tribes considered it to be part of their system of beliefs. Thus, the myth carried a religious significance – he was not only a character but a divine entity responsible for the protection of the forests.

Curupira mora no tronco das árvores

The earliest mention of Curupira was written by the first explorers in letters from Brazil to Portugal, reporting their findings. In those letters, colonizers characterized the figure as diabolic, a notion that did not exist in the native culture. In other words, the colonizers decided that the character also needed to be Christianized. They ignored native beliefs to contextualize Indigenous entities in a Catholic worldview. And those Christian values have transformed its story. Now, Curupira forgives the hunter – do you want something more Christian than the value of forgiveness? Instead of a dangerous creature, the current Curupira is ready to listen and pardon even the ones who harm animals.

Moving further in time, the second wave of accounts about the character during the 18th century sought to create distance from the story by stressing disbelief in the native storytellers who claimed to have seen Curupira. The myth was progressively becoming a legend. From a creature who was alive through society’s belief, it was becoming a remote explanation of certain behaviour. The mentions of Curupira were no longer surrounded by a fear of its existence. Instead, the emphasis was on how it explained the offers Indians made and the fear they had when going into the woods.

Curupira protege os animais

Finally, in the 20th century, the anthropologic study of the character culminated in Curupira’s “death” as a simple museum piece. The very fact that there were books that children could read about Curupira was already astounding. The tale was passed on for generations in their native oral cultures. But the colonizers, with their written culture, went there and printed it using colonial language. The nuances among different regions where the story was present were erased to create a unique version stripping away any religious value it carried before.

Well, in one sense, what better character to present national identity for children than a figure that has been taken and transformed by the Colonizer? It’s just like the rest of the land, isn’t it? What triggers me in all this is how the Colonizer is still shown as dominating this construction of national identity, overlooking the importance of the Native in this process. The physical characteristics of Curupira, the written language, the transformation of religion into didacticism, and the strong presence of human liberal ideals all point towards the domination of the colonizers’ culture. Thus, the Native that was the very origin of the story is only present in the shadows, being denied its role in the children’s construction of their cultural identities.

We are taught to look at one side of the coin. I was taught I was more European than Indigenous. And perhaps in my lineage that might be true, but my cultural heritage is much more complex than that. All I’m saying is that we may want to look at the other side of the coin as well.

Curupira tem os pés virados para trás

Designed by Giulia Cristofoli