#15th Anniversary of the Institute - Alonso Barros: Duendes: Symbiotic living in our otherwise common world

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As part of the celebrations for the Institute's 15th anniversary, a call for papers has been issued to all former Fellows and members of the Scientific Advisory Board. One simple rule, submit a short text on one of the following themes:

  • Variation on ‘Inhabiting the world differently’.
  • Imagination: what will the Institut d'études avancées de Nantes be like in 15 years' time?

Here are their answers!

Duende Amarillo

Duendes: Symbiotic living in our otherwise common world

Alonso Barros


"In this land, there first lived snakes amaro; savages, zacha runa, uchuc ullco; jaguars, otorongo; duendes, hapi nuno; poma, lion; atoc, fox; bears, ucumari; luychoy, deer..." (about the First Humanity, before being turned into stone) Guaman Poma de Ayala 1615-1616, 50.

The second decade of the 21st Century witnesses paradigmatic changes in the way we think we inhabit the biosphere, “other-wise”. 

Current ethnography for example, now accepts the existence of diverse agentic other-than-human magical fairyland embedded with and bound to our world, where a diverse multitude of sprites of all sizes, shapes and colours are known to thrive.

Popular lore in Iberian-American countries calls one such natural and generically invisible other-than-human being, Duende[1]. This word is a Hispano-Luso contraction and variation of the “dueño de” or "owner of" nature concept -retaken literally by Guamán Poma de Ayala in the epigraph and by Gonzalez Holguín to refer to the huacas, ghosts, goblins, boogeymen, gnomes, and other fantastical creatures of 16th C. and 17th C. Andean imaginaries. Around the world, such “other-than” humanities, generally correspond to “small people” gnomes or homunculi, alongside multitudes of little devils and domestic imps, lars, and penates, all akin to Iberian Duendes, the Mapuche N’gen, Filipino dwende, Pan-European elves, Pan-African-like djinns and Australasian creatures of their ilk, cognate to Roman genii locorum, the genies of places, the worldly spirits of all living things. 

The public image of Andean Duendes was forced to transition from being considered charismatic natural entities - angels “nor good nor bad”, to becoming evil and demonic ones - especially in the genocidal context of Spanish Christianization and “extirpation of idolatries”. Duendes showed up frequently in Spanish literature, well into the rise of modern rationalism (religious, scientific, and philosophical) (early 17th C.- late 18th th C.).

Present-day Duendes dwell freely inside the earth, caves, rocks, crevices, and waters. They move, cry, dance, and sing along the sounds of rivers, frogs, and birds; they are "messengers", envoys of the sun and the elements, spirits of the land, caretakers of the semio/biosphere (noosphere). The more urban ones live in homes, ruins and cemeteries, fickle sprites that breathe life into the mountain or hill, animate the wind, clouds, rain, a forest, and its trees. Amongst the Mapuche, the waterier N’gen announce themselves in the figure of a snake or rainbow that emerges from their head, as its telltale presence.

Duendes managed to survive Catholic persecutions in the Andes by binding and keeping care of human/other-than human interphases with nature, through the centuries, to this day -mostly by piloting the clouds and rain.

In short: 

Humans use natural resources that belong to other-than-human Duendes. They must take care of these "little people" in stones, or bush or in the clouds, and treat them well, if they want to continue coevolving. So that by caring for the well-being of the Duende guardians or entities (in) visibly responsible for the elements, and attending to their needs, humans are also caring for their own good. 

In times of global meteorological chaos and ghastly deaths, in a world burning with fossils, we need to find out and even imitate how Duendes and familiar other-than-human forces of life, like clouds, may be partly responsible for natural weather. One should try to reclaim the complex citizenship of human/other than human relations, learn the interdimensional code with which to interact with them -visual or other- and help with the task of controlling the weather and climate. Only by recognizing and respecting the Duendes may we learn to live with them “other-wise”, to restore some balance to the ravages of weather and climate, clouds, rains, and stone.


[1] Merriam Webster defines duende as “the power to attract through personal magnetism and charm”. To flamenco aficionados Duende or tener duende (“having duende”) loosely translates as passion, a heightened state of emotion, or artistic expression.