The rapidly disappearing wonderland of the Amazon holds many surprises–both ones that might help humanity (see: a concentrated host of plants with anti-cancer properties), and others that might drive it insane (see: the black caiman, green anaconda, and vampire fish). As usual, we’re going to focus on something from the latter category.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember my post on the Scottish Finfolk back in 2016. I came across the encantado then, but its legend was so similar to that of the Finfolk that I didn’t want to post about them back to back.
In both cases, we have water-based monsters who are able to pass as human. Despite living in magical, utopic kingdoms, neither are satisfied with their lot. They thus come ashore to seduce people or steal them away. Humans often blame them for unwanted pregnancies and disappearances (though some of that may be just be a cover for their own, mortal chicanery).
After that, the two myths diverge. Encantados are more friendly than the sinister Finfolk; they can get humans to like or even love them. They’re also more strange. Instead of coming from the ocean, they come from the silty freshwater of the Amazon. And instead of their natural state being vaguely humanoid, they are large, fleshy, pink dolphins.
Whether you believe in the encantados or not, these dolphins–boto, in the local lexicon–are very real. These intelligent, curious creatures can get to be over 8 feet and 400 pounds. Scars cover their backs, relics from fighting each other. They have long snouts filled with long, slender teeth, and bulbous foreheads used for echolocation. Buried in all that flesh are eyes are so small that some assume they’re blind. But botos can see quite well. In fact, legend has it that they are so perceptive that looking into their eyes will give you nightmares for the rest of your life.
Since it can be difficult to flirt when you have a giant, tooth-filled snout, encantados disguise themselves as humans when they come ashore (which is not that often, and only at night). They are drawn especially by parties, where their skills at seduction and music can be best appreciated. Humans can be so taken with them that when an encantado goes to leave–hurrying to return to the water before the break of day–a group will chase it, begging it to stay.
That’s how the encantado likes it. But woe betide anyone who gets too close. In addition to kidnapping and/or leaving women with unwanted children, encantados turn married men into babies and implant them in their wives’ wombs. They can enchant humans into doing their bidding, make them horribly sick, drive them insane, kill them, or, most troublingly, turn them into doughy dolphins themselves. They can also control the weather. I’m sure that’s fun during the flooding season.
Once you’ve been targeted by an encantado, only a shaman can save you. Many lay people take the “ounce of prevention” philosophy and never go into the river alone, avoiding it entirely when it’s dark. Even then, no one can be sure of their safety. Stories tell of canoers driven mad by an encantado simply swimming along behind them, doing nothing more than gently bumping their boat.
Perhaps because of these legends, people native to the Amazon have historically treated the boto with great respect. Killing or eating one was on par with killing or eating a human, and might bring you even worse luck. But, as usual, industrialization has come in and messed everything up. The dolphins are under threat by overfishing, pollution, and all the other familiar forces of environmental destruction.
Regardless of supernatural status, the boto are fighting back. One researcher described how in the course of just a few decades, the dolphins went from getting tangled in fishing nets to treating them as a buffet. Maybe they’ll adapt to all the other crap we’re throwing at them, too. And if they’re as scary as the legends say they are, god help us if they do.
Want to avoid the encantados’ revenge? The Amazon Conservation Team partners with indigenous peoples to protect the rainforest. They also have great ratings on Charity Navigator. Check them out.
*Image courtesy of Oceancetaceen [CC BY-SA 2.0], from Wikimedia Commons
**Image courtesy of Christoph2007 17:20, 31. Jul. 2007 (CEST) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
***Image courtesy of Nortondefeis [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons