The mountains I can see from my bedroom window here in Merida were once topped with glaciers and snow. That snow is mostly gone now--perhaps because of the pollution from the exhaust from all of the cars or perhaps because of climate change. In any event, the five snow-covered peaks are part of the identity of Merida, and this beautiful story accounts for why they are known as the Five Eagles. In the park just outside the development where we are staying, there is an arch with five sculpted eagles perched on top of it--an homage to this story, which I've borrowed from a blog called "Venezuelan Indian" that deals with Venezuelan legends.
Caribay and the Five White Eagles
This myth from Merida is taken from Maria Manuela de Cora's book "Kuai-Mare: Mitos Aborigenes de Venezuela" but was originally collected by the noted Merida historian and writer Don Tulio Febres Cordero (1860-1938). The Timote-Cuica were a pre-Colombian collection of loosely-linked Chibcha-speaking chiefdoms living in an area that encompasses the current Andean states of Merida, Trujillo and Tachira. Their chief God was Ches, the Supreme Being, but they also worshipped Zuhe, the Sun, and Chia, the Moon, and venerated the mountain peaks and lakes. This myth tells the tale of Caribay, wind spirit of the high paramos, and the origin of Merida's five highest peaks - Bolivar (5007m), Humboldt/Bonpland (4942m), La Concha (4922m), El Toro (4775m) and El Leon (4743m).
High among the rocky crags of the Andes mountains, with their jagged peaks and hills, the Mirripuyes Indians lived a hard life, fighting frequent wars with their neighbours. In their vegetable plots, they grew corn, yucca, ocumo and different fruits. They hunted the abundant rabbits and deer in the forest and the birds that soared in the clear mountain sky.
One of the fierce Indian chiefs had a daughter, Caribay. She was so beautiful that people from the tribe thought she must be the daughter of Zuhe, the Sun, and Chia, the moon, because her eyes and her skin were so bright that they seemed to be made of pure light.
Caribay liked to wear necklaces of bone or painted clay and adorn her hair with coloured feathers.
One day, she was on the bank of a river looking for shiny flat stones to decorate her cotton shawl when she saw five gigantic condors fly past, their white plumage shining like silver in the sun.
Caribay had never seen birds like these before. Straight away, she felt a desire to adorn herself with their feathers and she began to run after the shadows they cast on the ground, hoping they would tire of flying before she tired of chasing them.
So she ran from hill to hill, jumping over ravines and the streams formed by the meltwater that blocked her path, until, overcome with fatigue she reached one of the highest summits of the mountain, a place bare of any vegetation, where the silence made her feel she was in the presence of Ches (the Supreme Being of the Timote-Cuica tribes).
When the birds got there they stopped for moment and then began to fly higher until they disappeared from view.
Caribay stopped. She was surprised at how far she had run. From the peak where she was standing she could see on one side, far away, the wide savannah at the foot of the mountain, and on the other side the great Laguna de Coquivacoa, in which the mountains of the sierra were reflected as if they rose up from the lake itself.
Above her head the mist which guards the realm of Ches was closing in as night began to fall.
Caribay felt cold and was afraid. She began to cry, calling on Zuhe, the Sun, to help her. But her cries bounced off the rocky crags until they turned into a terrifying whistle that echoed through the mountains. The Sun, however, unheeding of her pleas, began to set behind the Andes.
"Will you help me Chia!" said the girl, turning to the Moon.
As the wind dropped, Caribay´s words could be clearly heard. Chia, the Moon, appeared. Her radiance blocked out the light from the stars and lit up the sky, suddenly highlighting the five white eagles, which began to fly towards the Earth.
Filled with joy, Caribay began to sing a slow, rhythmic chant - like flute music - as the eagles descended lower and lower, until they touched down on the high Andean mountains close to the girl, cleaving to the rocks with their claws, each one on a different peak.
There they remained, motionless, their faces pointing north and their wings extended to form the white mountain peaks that stand out even in the dead of night.
"Now I can pluck some of their feathers," Caribay said to herself, and ran with new energy towards the birds, holding out her arms to reach them.
But when she touched their hard feathers, she stopped, afraid, and fled - giving out a long cry, because the condors had turned to ice and stone in their positions.
On hearing the young girl's cry, which resounded around the peaks like the echo of a great wind, Chia hid herself in the clouds and the five eagles awoke and furiously beat their wings, their white feathers falling down in a flurry of snowflakes that covered the mountains completely.
Caribay was lost that night among the peaks and became the spirit of the Andes. The eagles - still and silent in their high perches - became the five enormous mountain peaks that make up Merida's high sierra, perpetually covered in snow.
Nowadays, when Caribay, the spirit of the mountains, gives out her shrill lament - which is the howl of the storm - the eagles once again awake and shake off their feathers as falling snow and all the mountain peaks once again become white, in the heavy snow storms.
(Translated by Russell Maddicks)