By Andriolli Costa*
We are at the height of the Cold War, and such context is more than enough. The clashes between the two superpowers, United States and the Soviet Union, were no longer limited to military power or economic success, but also to a technological race that prompted a lot of innovation and experimentalism. Everything could represent an advantage against the enemy – even if was far beyond scientific parameters. This is how projects like MKULTRA were created, investing in parapsychological or supernatural approaches. Telepathy, hypnotism, extrasensory perception and even fantastic beings were studied, as their existence could tip the balance of war.
This is the background established by Guillermo del Toro in his new movie, the award-winning The Shape of Water (2017), which premiered in Brazil on February 2. In another dark fairy tale, the director builds the relationship between Eliza – a mute maid working in a military facility – with a mysterious amphibian humanoid creature captured in South America. “The natives in the Amazon worshiped it as a god”, explains the government agent played by Michael Shannon in the trailer, shortly before starting his session of torture.
The scene was enough to arouse our curiosity. A monster worshiped in the Amazon? Could it be a reference to some creature of the Brazilian folklore? At first, two beings would fit more easily into the monster’s appearance: the igpupiara and the water caboclo. Which one would it be? More than mere speculation, the film gives us a great opportunity to reflect on the peculiarities of each myth.
This is one of the oldest myths ever recorded in Brazil. It is mentioned with Curupira and Boitata in the letter of St. Vincent written by the priest Joseph of Anchieta, on 1560. According to the Jesuit, the name is Tupi for “the one who lives in the water”. The creature was another one of the “ghosts” that plagued the natives, killing and drowning those who crossed the river in their canoes made of a single bark. No reference to its appearance is mentioned.
It was also in São Vicente / SP, the first Brazilian village, where we find records of the first death of an Igpupiara. The creature’s combat against a Portuguese commander was referenced by Pedro Magalhães Gândavo in 1564. According to the chronicler, the being was 3.5 meters long, hairy body and large bristles on the muzzle, remembering a mustache, as well as a fin capable of holding its body erect. Between howls and biting attempts, the Ipupiara was killed and dragged away from the water to dry.
Fernão Cardim, in notes made between 1583 and 1601, also described the igpupiaras. For him, there are even male and female versions of the monster. “They look like men of good stature, but their eyes are very hollow. The females look like women, have long hair and are beautiful: these monsters are found on the bars of sweet rivers”. The creatures were known to kill their victims with a powerful embrace, bursting men inside – much like the Boa constrictor. However when the Igpupiaras felt the victim has died, “they gave some moans of feeling and, leaving the body behind, just fled”.
Cardim’s description gives the most scope for a reference to the film. The feeling of the monster while killing seems to dialogue with the sensitivity that Del Toro plans to incorporate into his monster. There are no references to fins, as in Gandavo, and the idea that there are males and females gives this version a sexual component that lacks in the others.
While the Igpupiara belongs to the natives imaginary, gaining form in the Brazilian folklore over the centuries, the myth of the Water Caboclo is much more recent. There’re no reference to the creature before the cycle of boats on the São Francisco River, which begun in 1880. The parallel with the final years of slavery is also undeniable, when freed black men represented a threat to be feared, avoided, accepted or in some cases controlled. It is very common to find in this myth references to the oblation – a respectful offering to allow the safe passage of the boat or a successful fishery. The Water Caboclo is a myth of the regulation of the relationship between nature and men, centered in the force of the water.
This creature has several names depending on the region. Water Nigger, Water Bug, Water Compadre are some of them. Descriptions of its appearance are also plural. According to Noraldino Lima, on 1925, the most know Water Caboclo is described as being: “small, thick, muscular, copper color, fast in movement and always angry”. The creature had red hair, like fire, which turned white like cotton while aging.
Wilson Lins, decades later, finds a similar creature: “small, stumpy, beautiful musculature, tanned skin and an eye in the middle of the forehead”. José Teixeira finds another characteristic of beastiality: the body covered with hair. “It’s all black, bareheaded. Hands and feet of ducks. It’s silly to shoot bullet, as it hits the black hairy leather and plunges into the water”.
As the descriptions are so different, many versions of the Water Caboclo may have served as inspiration for the film. The “duck hands”, with membranes for swimming, capture the image of the film well. Smooth skin and amphibian look also fits Del Toro’s narrative. One of the points of disagreement is that many versions of the Caboclo describe him as small and stumpy, while the Shape of Water monster is slender and tall. Another mismatch is the region: its presence is mainly in the southeast, northeast and center-west of Brazil. Never in the Amazon. On the other hand, oblations – in the form of tobacco and cachaça offerings to the creature – can be confused by foreigners as a form of divine worship.
Creature of the Black Lagoon
When we began to speculate which folkloric creature could have inspired Del Toro, many said there was no such thing. The Shape of Water would only be the director’s version of a Universal classic, The Creature of the Black Lagoon, released in 1954. This, however, is also an insufficient answer. After all, in the very film of the 50’s, the Amazon was also mentioned as the creature’s habitat.
In an interview with journalist Tom Weaver, the producer of the film William Alland – also responsible for the script, recalls that the idea came years earlier in a party at Orson Welles’. It was there that Gabriel Figueroa, a Mexican filmmaker (and not Brazilian, as has been circulating on Facebook) insisted with the guests on the existence of a fishmen population in the Amazon:
“Figueroa told the story about the fact that there is this creature that lives up in the Amazon who is half-man, half-fish. Once a year he comes up and claims a maiden, and after that, he leaves, and the village is then safe for another year. (…) For about five minutes there, held forth about how this was not a myth, that there really was such a creature, that the Amazonian people talked about him all the time”.
About 11 years later, Alland remembered this conversation to write a story called “The Sea Monster”. With touches of Beauty and the Beast and treatments by Maurice Zimm, Harry Essex and Arthur Ross, the screenplay of The Creature of the Black Lagoon finally emerged.
What we have then is an American who has heard from a Mexican a fantastic narrative from South America. A questionable source for a myth which could have been completely changed to the point of it becoming unrecognizable. It is difficult to know if Figueroa heard the story in Brazil or in some other country. After all, the Amazonian forest also includes the territory of Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. In the same way, it is difficult to know if among the hundreds of indigenous peoples there are some who have exactly the myth narrated about the fish man.
However, I have heard a similar story. Not with fish, but with a snake. Jesus Paes Loureiro, researcher of the Amazonian imaginary, writes that the Tupinambá of Pará believed that there were these creatures in Lake Juá, just above Santarém. When a girl was suspected of having lost her virginity, her parents took her to the lake carring a lot of gifts to the monster. There lived a serpent which served the Tupi god of love, Rudá, and which was able to recognize virgins. If the girl was still a maiden, the creature would receive the presents and leave. Otherwise, the girl would be devoured.
Fruit of this amalgam of interpretations, the monster in The Shape of Water represents the mysteries of the bottom of the river. The same water that gives life, but also, once revolted, can take it. Sensitive and chilling in moments, violent and deadly in others, we find the right opportunity to let Del Toro take us by the hand to the depths of our darkest and sweetest dreams.
* Andriolli Costa, 28 years, is a Brazilian Communication PhD student, specialized on the studies of Myth, Folklore and Imaginary.