Saci is arguably the most popular character in Brazilian folklore. Saci is a one-legged elf with holes in the palms of his hands, who smokes a pipe and wears a magical red cap that enables him to disappear and reappear wherever he wishes (usually in the middle of a dust devil). Considered an annoying prankster in most parts of Brazil, and a potentially dangerous and malicious creature in others, he will nevertheless grant wishes to anyone who manages to steal his magic cap or trap him in a bottle or under a sieve.
Origins of the legend
While some claim that the Saci myth originated in Europe in the 13th century, it probably derives from the Yaçi-Yaterê of Tupi-Guarani mythology, a magic one-legged child with fire-red hair who would spell-bind people and break the forests' silence with his loud shouts and whistles. The word Yaçi (IPA: [ja'si] is the Old Tupi name for the moon, which seems to be related to his originally nightly ramblings.
This indigenous character was appropriated and transformed in the 18th century by the African slaves who had been brought in large numbers to Brazil. Slaves would tell Saci stories to amuse and frighten the children of the farm, black and white. In this process the creature became black, his red hair metamorphosed into a red cap, and — like the African elders who told the tales — he came to be always smoking his clay-and-reed pipe. His name mutated into various forms, such as Saci Taperê and Sá Pereira (a common Portuguese nname), and eventually Saci Pererê.
His red cap may have been inspired on the Phrygian cap which was at one time worn by Portuguese peasants. The Saci-Pererê concept shows some syncretism with Christian elements: he bolts away when faced with crosses, leaving behind a sulphurous smell - both classical attributes of the Devil.
The concepts of imprisoning a supernatural being in a bottle by a magically marked cork, and of forcing him to grant wishes in return of his liberty, have obvious parallels in the story of Aladdin from the Arabian Nights. Any connection between the two legends is not to be dismissed, since many slaves were Muslims and thus presumably familiar with the Arabian tales. Moreover, the occupation of Portugal by the Muslim Moors, between the years 711 and 1492, provides another possible path for Arabian influence on the Saci legend.
Saci has three colloquial variations:
Powers, weaknesses, and habits
An incorrigible prankster, Saci will not cause major harm, but there is no little harm that he won't do. He will hide children's toys, set farm animals loose, tease dogs, and curse chicken eggs preventing them from hatching. In a kitchen, the Saci would spill all salt, sour the milk, burn bean stew, and drop flies into the soup. If a popcorn kernel fails to pop, it is because the Saci cursed it. Given half a chance, he will dull the seamstress's needles, hide her thimbles, and tangle her sewing threads. If he sees a nail lying on the ground, he will turn it with the point up. In short, anything that goes wrong - in the house, or outside it - may be confidently blamed on the Saci.
Besides disappearing or becoming invisible (often with only his red cap and the red glow of his pipe still showing), Saci can transform himself into a Matitaperê, an elusive bird whose melancholic song seems to come from nowhere. Saci will not cross water streams, lest he lose all his powers — a fact that will be undoubtedly found useful to people who find themselves being pursued by one. If that happens, the victim should drop ropes full of knots; the Saci will then be compelled to stop and undo the knots, thus allowing his victim to escape. One can also try to appease him by leaving behind some cachaça, or some tobacco for his pipe.
He is fond of juggling lit charcoal or other small objects and letting them fall through the holes on his palms. An exceedingly nimble fellow, the lack of his right leg does not prevent him from bareback-riding a horse, and sitting cross-legged while he puffs on his pipe (both tricks are nonsensical jokes in the same vein as the headless mule's gushing fire from the nostrils).
Every dust devil, says the legend, is caused by the spin-dance of an invisible Saci. One can capture him by throwing into the dust devil a rosary made of separately blessed prayer beads, or by pouncing on it with a sieve . With care, the captured Saci can be coaxed to enter a dark glass bottle, where he can be imprisoned by a cork with a cross marked on it. He can also be enslaved by stealing his cap, which is the source of his power.
However, depending on the treatment he gets from his master, an enslaved Saci may become either a trustworthy guardian and friend, or a devious and terrible enemy, in which case the master is compelled to return his freedom.
1 ^ Ferigolo, J. and Langer, M.C. (2006), A Late Triassic dinosauriform from south Brazil and the origin of the ornithischian predentary bone, Historical Biology: A Journal of Paleobiology, p. 1-11.