Meet Jasy Jateré

He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake. One of many human cultural inventions to scare children safe

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My kids got addicted to myths early on. It’s the best way into comparative religion, which is the best way to keep 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 I knew it was time for monsters.

In the forest of eastern Paraguay, the Guarani people have a belief system with several elements that sound strangely familiar. A creator god in the sky (Tupa) made the first human 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, a relationship the first humans quickly bungled.

Representing evil to the Guarani is a devil of sorts named Tau. Tupa for some reason chose to leave Tau on Earth to mess with humanity.

It’s a god thing, you wouldn’t understand.

These deep parallels between unrelated myth systems are fascinating testaments to our basic human architecture. But each system also includes unique features. One distinctive realm of Guarani belief is the seven legendary monsters, each with its own domain. The monster Teju Jagua is the god of caverns and protector of fruits—I don’t see how those go together, but I’ll bet the Guarani do. Moñái is the god of open fields, Ao Ao the god of mountains. The others are the gods of sex, waterways, and death.

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 blond hair and light blue eyes. Jasy 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 invisibly at siesta time in search of children who are not asleep. At the bedside of an unsleeping child, he suddenly becomes visible—picture that—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 who, in addition to being the god of mountains, is a cannibalistic sheep-man. I should have mentioned that.

It’s no surprise that at least one actual short, blond, blue-eyed visitor to eastern Paraguay has 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. 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 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.

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.

The typecasting of wolves as villains in European folklore has similar roots. Wolves were known to wander into villages in medieval Europe, especially during times of environmental stress, helping themselves to the odd unattended chicken or child. That kind of thing leaves a mark on your folklore, especially if it was a productive layer.

In the end, such warning legends say less about our cruelty as parents 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.

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...