Strange tales tell of a terrifying ship that sails the canals of Chile, a phantom crewed by the damned and commanded by a warlock. The ghost ship Caleuche has captivated the minds of sailors and land-dwellers alike for generations.
With its origins shrouded in mystery, this phantom vessel has been the subject of countless tales and legends, each offering a unique perspective on its story. Where do these stories come from, and why does the Caleuche strike fear into the hearts of Chilean sailors?
And could the stories be true?
What Is the Caleuche?
The Caleuche is a ghost ship with origins in the Chiloe mythology of southern Chile. Its name comes from a portmanteau of the Mapuche word Kalewtun, which means to transform or change, and the suffix che, meaning people. The ship has many names: she is “The Enchanted Ship”, “Barcoiche”, and “The Warlock Ship”.
There are many different versions of the legends that surround the ship. These legends tend to give the ship different purposes (some benevolent and some malevolent) but keep the general outlines of its description the same.
The ship is said to sail along the Chiloe canals at amazing speeds. While it cannot always be seen it is said that people can normally sense its approach. It can be seen on foggy days, cutting through the mist.
Most versions of the ship have it resembling an old Spanish galleon. It has been described as a shining white ship with three masts carrying five sails. Legends say that it blazes with lights from every window.
Supposedly the sound of music and revelry is said to come from the ship as if a great party is always being held on board. Those drawn to the sound of the partying have often claimed that the ship disappears when approached by mortal men or becomes intangible, with mortal ships floating straight through it.
Built by a God?
The ship’s purpose, and those who man it, depends on the version of the legend one listens to. The oldest version of the tale ties the ship to old Chilote mythology and its pantheon of gods.
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In this version, the ship is said to be a living thing created by el Millalobo, Chiloe’s second most important sea god, for his children. Millalobo and his children were known as the Royal family of the sea. One daughter was known as Sirena Chilota and was a kind of mermaid while the other daughter was Pincoya, a type of water spirit. The son was called Pincoy.
Pincoya and Pincoy would search the oceans for sailors who had died at sea. They would then bring them back to the Caleuche where the men were then brought back to life. Once on the ship, the undead sailors manned it while also enjoying a never-ending party.
This being a story about a ghost ship, slightly darker versions of the story exist. In these, the ship is controlled by Brujo Chilote, an evil sorcerer from Chilote mythology. In this version, the ship travels the oceans looking to entice naive sailors.
The Caleuche abducts sailors and people from land and then forces them to man the ship for eternity. These unlucky victims have one leg fused to their spine so they cannot escape and are transformed into creatures called Invunche.
Locals were terrified of being spotted and captured by this more malevolent version of the ship. It was said the only way to escape was to hide behind particular trees such as the Chilean wineberry or the olvillo.
A Ship of Sorcerers?
The final and most modern version of the story has the ship being used as magical transport by the Sorcerers of Chiloe. In this version, it is said that the ship is used by a group of sorcerers who sail on the ship every three months on a voyage to increase their powers. In this version, the ship is still owned by Milalobo and it is said that only the crew may board the ship, explaining why it tends to disappear or become intangible when approached.
Over time people started believing that some local merchants would make deals with these sorcerers in exchange for wealth and success. When a person from Chiloe quickly gained wealth or fame it was often said they had made a Faustian bargain with the crew of the Caleuche.
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What these pacts are meant to be is still unclear. Some claim that merchants must let the rowdy crew of the Caleuche hold debauched parties in their homes when the ship docks, while others claim the merchants must let the crew use their homes for dark and macabre rituals.
In 1960 the Valdivia or “Great Chilean Earthquake” struck the region resulting in fire, landslides, tsunamis, and floods. Despite the size of the earthquake, some houses were left untouched by the disaster which led to a lot of superstitious rumors that the owners of these houses had made pacts with the crew of the Caleuche.
Around the same time, it became a common rumor that many of the rich merchants of the area had had anchors dropped outside their homes as a kind of calling card. It became common knowledge that these merchants had made deals with the Caleuche and should be shunned.
Origins of the Caleuche Legends
There are a few hypotheses on the origins of the Caleuche legends. The most popular relates to the fact that the Chiloe Archipelago is rather remote and the people who live on these islands were isolated for a long time. They were an independent, self-sufficient people, relying on the sea for pretty much everything.
The sea was a big part of their lives, and they used it to explain their encounters with the outside world. It is thought that when outside ships, such as those from the Netherlands, first arrived in the region in 1600 the locals explained these strange ships by connecting them to their local mythology.
Others claim the myths are an adaptation/ assimilation of outside legends into Chiloe mythology. The Caleuche is strikingly similar to tales of The Flying Dutchman, another ghost ship said to be manned by the undead as well as real-world events such as the disappearance of the Dutch ship “The Calanche”.
A more practical explanation is that local smugglers seized on and popularized the legends as a way of explaining away their own illicit activities. Fair play to them, if they are going for a cover story then the Caleuche should earn them plaudits for inventiveness.
Whether it is a real ghost ship or simply a figment of the collective imagination, the Caleuche stays an enduring symbol of the mystery and power of the sea. Regardless of its origin, the Caleuche will continue to be remembered as one of the most intriguing and captivating legends of all time.
Top Image: Every window of the Caleuche has a light, and the sounds of revelry can be heard, but sailors should beware her approach. Source: Kaleb / Adobe Stock.