In the Peruvian Andes, deep inside mine shafts that are centuries old, the Muki offers desperate workers a deal they can’t refuse…and one they will surely regret.
Welcome to another episode in our Terrifying Legends of Peru Series. Last week, we explored one of the most haunted houses in all of Latin America. You see, even the crowded metropolitan capital of Lima isn’t safe from malevolent spirits. Imagine what you might find after midnight in the open Andean grasslands thousands of meters above sea level. Now imagine, if you can, what you might find below them in the dark mines of Pasco.
This is where you will find the Muki.
Warning: this series may contain graphic or disturbing descriptions or images. Read at your own risk. Also, please remember that there are often several versions of these stories and mine may be different from others that you have heard or read. In some cases, I have combined my favorite bits of different re-tellings, which is all part of the creative and evolving nature of myths and legends.
Years ago, high in the Peruvian Andes in the region of Pasco, there was a villager named Demetrio. Demetrio and his family had little money, so when he heard that a Swiss mining company had come to the region looking for labor, he eagerly signed up, along with many others from the surrounding mountain villages. They worked every day without rest in the dark tunnels, hoping to earn the colectiva bonus that was given to only the most productive miners.
The colectiva was no small thing.
It was the difference from becoming rich and being paid only the bare minimum to survive. Only those who made colectiva became rich. The rest…well, they were condemned to another year of futility in the tunnels.
Now, Demetrio worked very hard, perhaps harder than the rest of his companions. However, his pick was nearly rusted through and it took triple the effort to break through the rocks. His only sustenance was the large bundles of coca leaves which he chewed throughout the day to keep up his stamina.
One day, Demetrio found that his bag of coca leaves was missing. He accused his companion Anastacio of stealing. Anastacio was confused and claimed innocence. Demetrio was not convinced. Suddenly, another one of their companions, a thin man with a gaunt face who rarely ever spoke, approached and said in a hushed voice:
“Maybe it was the Muki”
Demetrio was confused and asked what he meant. His companion only replied,
“The Muki is the lord of the mines.”
Demetrio’s coca disappeared again the following day and the next. On the 3rd day, Demetrio decided to wait in hiding near his day pack with his flashlight turned off in order to catch the thief in the act.
It wasn’t long before a small figure appeared, less than a meter high, holding a flashlight and wearing miner’s gear that would barely have fit a child. Demetrio saw the figure moving toward his bag when he shouted “Stop thief! I’ve caught you!”
The figure turned and spoke.
“DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”
Not only was the little creature’s voice far deeper and raspier than one would expect for its size, it had an emotionless glare that pierced the very darkness. It had a white beard, long blonde hair, no neck and it walked like a duck, a combination that would have been comical if it weren’t for those eyes. They glinted like metal in an almost hypnotic manner. Demetrio responded fearfully, “y-y-you must be the Muki.”
The Muki said it knew the difficulties that Demetrio was facing, and that it only wished to make a deal: “I will ensure that these mines make you a rich man. All you have to do is bring me more of your coca. One sack every week for one year. I don’t know where you get it but there is none that makes me work so diligently. The only condition is that you must tell no one about our deal.”
Demetrio accepted without hesitation and immediately his rusted equipment became like-new.
Soon, Demetrio was returning from the tunnels with so much precious metal that he was soon receiving colectiva bonus and becoming rich. His companion Anastacio was also rising in the ranks and when the two men talked one day, Anastacio revealed that he too had met the Muki. Demetrio said nothing more, remembering his part of the bargain. It suddenly dawned on him that all of the miners in their group were winning large bonuses and becoming rich while pulling out nearly impossible quantities of metals.
The two companions employed their winnings very differently.
Anastacio and the other miners took to the taverns and bought lavish trinkets, spending their money on vices and vanities while mocking the Muki. Demetrio, on the other hand, invested in terrains and livestock for his family and bought a nice house for them to stay in the city of Huancayo.
While Demetrio was in Huancayo purchasing the house, with intentions to return immediately to the mines, he stopped a moment to visit his cousin. Demetrio’s cousin was known as something of a witch who made a living there as a healer and fortune teller. When she read Demetrio’s future in the coca leaves, she looked at him sternly and told him that he was in grave danger and must immediately go to see the Muki, even though Demetrio had never mentioned the creature.
Returning to the mine, Demetrio again encountered the Muki. The look in the creature’s eye glinted more brightly and more dangerously than the first time they met. The Muki spoke:
“Demetrio, your companions have behaved very badly and broken their agreements. Yet you have kept your word. Leave this mine and never return again.”
The Muki vanished. Demetrio left Pasco to retire to his new home in Huancayo the next morning.
That same day, while Anastacio and his companions were working deep inside the mine, the tunnels collapsed, burying alive all those who had broken their deal with the Muki. Not a single one of them saw the light of day again.
Their bodies were never found.
Demetrio later learned of the mine’s collapse and knew that only fortune had saved him from a devil’s bargain.
The True Story?
The legend of the Muki, sometimes written Muqui or Mooqie, is widespread throughout the Andes, although it is most original to Peru and Bolivia.
In our story, Demetrio was very fortunate. Few who ever make a pact with the Muki are able to escape with their lives. But what is the true nature of the Muki legend?
One interpretation is that the Muki legend is a kind of metaphor for the terrible risks that miners accept in their attempt to escape poverty.
Just like our friends Demetrio and Anastacio in the story, many were doomed to a futile battle in the mines, unable to receive bonuses because of poor equipment or bad health. Their dreams got further away day by day as they inhaled quartz dust until they died from lung diseases such as silicosis.
If this theory seems implausible, I leave you with one final piece of the puzzle. Muki is said to be derived from a Quechua word which means “to smother” or “to strangle”, just as the lethal dust of the mines choked the lungs of the workers who entered those dark caverns day after day, year after year until finally succumbing to the inevitable disease.
Join us next time as we investigate a legend that will make you think twice before jumping into one of Peru’s jungle rivers…
If you enjoyed, please comment, like, and share on Facebook. Thanks for reading!
Sources and Related Links:
Safeguards against silicosis in mining – this disease is still a problem in mining.
© Michael Lee Dreckschmidt and Living in Peru, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Lee Dreckschmidt and Living in Peru with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.