My kids got addicted to myths early on. It’s the best way into comparative religion, which is the best way out of the clutches of any one brand.
We blew through the Greco-Romans in a few weeks, and I started reaching into dozens of other traditions. Eventually we ran out of gods, and it was time for monsters.
In the forest of eastern Paraguay, the Guarani people have a belief system with several elements that sound vaguely familiar. There’s a creator god in the sky (Tupa) who created the first couple (Rupave and Sypave). One of the first gifts of Tupa to his new creations was the knowledge of good and evil. As is usually the case, the Guarani consider themselves to be the first people created and therefore special in the eyes of the god, and they believe humanity quickly bungled this special relationship. Representing evil is a devil of sorts named Tau. Tupa, for reasons far beyond mortal understanding, decided to leave Tau on Earth to mess with humanity.
Guarani belief also has its unique features, one of which is the seven legendary monsters, each with its own domain. One is the god of caverns and fruits—I don’t understand how those go together, but I’ll bet the Guarani do. Another is the god of open fields. Others are the gods of sex, mountains, waterways, and death.
The last of the seven is Jasy Jateré [YAH-soo yah-teh-DAY]. Unlike his six siblings, who are reptiles and monsters of various kinds, Jasy is a little boy with shaggy blonde hair and blue eyes. He is lord of the siesta.
Kids raised in traditional Guarani homes may forget many things about their upbringing, but they always remember Jasy Jateré. Perhaps you’ll understand why. Jasy is said to wander villages at siesta time in search of children who are not asleep. Though invisible as he stalks his prey, he suddenly becomes visible at the bedside of a child who is awake and puts her into a trance with his magic staff. Jasy then leads a procession of hypnotized children to a cave in the forest, where he blinds them with thorns and feeds them to his brother Ao Ao, a cannibalistic sheep-man.
It’s no surprise that at least one short, blond, blue-eyed visitor to eastern Paraguay reported being pelted with grapefruit by screaming children.
Now at first blush, the legend of Jasy Jateré just doesn’t make sense. There’s nothing more futile than trying to will yourself to sleep, especially during the day. Now add the self-defeating notion of terrifying a child to sleep, and the tale of Jasy Jateré begins to seem cruel and perverse.
And it would be—IF the point was really getting the child to sleep. But it isn’t. The actual intention is not to enforce the nap but to keep children from wandering out of their beds into the very real dangers of the rainforest as their parents sleep. A daily dose of psychic terror is thought to be better than the fate that awaits a child lost and alone in the forest.
It’s easy for me, sipping my latte in a North American subdivision, to say that nothing justifies immersing our children in this kind of terror. But I have to admit that I have any number of ways of keeping my kids safe while they nap, like locking our doors and living 4000 miles from the nearest wild pit viper. Our neighborhood has very few crocodiles and many, many lawyers. If my child is bitten by either one, there’s a hospital four minutes away.
I can only imagine to what lengths I would go to protect my kids from very real, very fatal risks. In the end, I think such warning legends say less about our cruelty than they do about the tendency of natural selection to favor the genes of those who will do anything and everything to protect their children.
At any rate, my kids ate Jasy Jateré up and begged for more monsters. I’ll bring them here in later posts.