Copahue: the history and myth of morality and recuperation

Residents living in the shadow of Copahue, a stratovolcano on the Chilean-Argentine border, have been told to evacuate after warnings that an eruption is imminent. Volcanic eruptions are notoriously difficult to predict with any great degree of accuracy, so caution is always advisable. Copahue last erupted in December 2012 and is a very vulnerable geological area. Despite the potentially catastrophic consequences of a large eruption, the volcano has an interesting, mythical, history.

Terror and beauty collide at Copahue
Terror and beauty collide at Copahue

Mapuche legend claims that a native cacique (head chief) named Copahue ruled the area surrounding the volcano, subjugating his people with intolerable cruelty. After years of repression, Copahue was eventually killed and his former subjects buried his remains in the volcano that now bears his name.

Copahue’s son crossed the mountains from Chile seeking to take control of the tribe by reuniting the dissatisfied subjects under his rule. During his journey, he came across a sorceress, high on the mountaintop of whom he asked his destiny. The sorceress told him that his destiny lay on the other side of the mountains. Legend has it that the sorceress was of incomparable beauty and Copahue’s son fell under her spell. She convinced the young warrior to make his way toward’s his father’s land and attack the treacherous tribes. On his first encounter with his father’s killers, Copahue’s son succeeded in defeating many warriors.┬áDrunk with pride, he returned to the sorceress and the continuation of his prophecy.

The tribal elders had been convinced by the young warrior’s strength and purpose and begged him to stay but, swayed by the beauty of the sorceress, he ignored custom and returned to the mountains.

The story of Copahue and his son mirrors many European myths of morals
The story of Copahue and his son mirrors many European myths of morality

Several months later, Copahue’s son returned to the valley, with his beloved sorceress in tow. The tribal elders now refused the boy as their leader and dubbed his companion the “Snow Devil” after discovering that the boy called her his “Snow Flower”. Attracting some followers amongst the youth of the tribes, Copahue’s son triumphed and celebrated with a drug-fuelled orgy provided from the sorceress’s apothecary. Drunk with power, the son ruled in the image of his father and suffered the same fatal end.

Blamed for his corruption, the sorceress was condemned by the tribal elders to be hung from a tree. As the workers dug deep into the volcanic earth, in order to bury the sorceress far away from their mortal belongings, vicious jets of warm water burst from the bedrock. Fleeing with anguished concern, the native Mapuche reaffirmed the name of the mountains as Copahue, believing the hot springs to be a punishment brought by him for the death of the sorceress. Only by wearing a green stone could one cross those evil-infested lands, as a means of driving away the spirits.

A lesson of morality not completely dissimilar to Macbeth, the Mapuche legend meant Copahue’s slopes remained dormant for several centuries.

Nevertheless, these volcanic spas would become a popular medicinal pilgrimage site in the 19th century, as the indigenous influence eroded in the face of decades of European colonisation. In 1870, a Chilean physician, Dr Pedro Velez, attained permission from the local indigenous community to bring several of his patients to the Copahue springs for treatment. The popularity of the springs increased as the century drew to a close and the 1899 publication of J.M. Cabezon and L. Maciel’s “Thermal Baths of Copahue” attracted visitors from across the continent.

The legendary spirits of the Copahue had a different effect on Europeans
The legendary spirits of the Copahue had a different effect on Europeans

In 1903 a medical study of the springs was carried out by Dr Enrique Ducloux who declared that the unique chemical and gaseous properties of the water, brought on by the volcanic activity beneath the surface, gave Copahue’s springs special recuperative powers. The creation of the Copahue National Reserve in 1937 ensured the enduring status of Copahue as a popular tourist destination.

To the indigenous Mapuche forefathers, the healing properties of the great Copahue springs evolve from the power and the spirit of the dead chieftain and his son whose remains were buried within the great volcanic crater.

Whatever viewpoint, Copahue provides a link between the land and its people, between the contemporary inhabitants of its slopes and the tribes of centuries before who sought to overthrow their tyrannical rulers. People will continue to reside in its great shadow despite the frequent warnings of indigenous history and the fear that the volcano’s masters seek their final revenge.