On the Meaning of "Yepun"

An Investigation into the Meaning of "Yepun"

Originally translated as "Sirius", doubts have arisen about the true meaning of the Mapuche name of the fourth VLT Unit Telescope, "Yepun". An investigation was carried out by Dr. Guillermo Delgado (*) who reports on his findings below.

The conclusion is that "Yepun" is more likely to mean "Venus" (as the evening star).

Let me start by mentioning that when we first received the proposed names for the four VLT Unit Telescopes ("Antu", "Kueyen", "Melipal" and "Yepun") , we already noticed that there were some discrepancies between our various informers about the meaning of "Yepun". This might have been due to the fact that astronomy does not seem to be one of the main concerns of the Mapuche people (at least in recent times).

Already on March 8, 1999, we received, through Maxime Boccas (Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory - CTIO), comments from Prof. Carlos Gonzalez (Pontificia Universidad Católica) stating that the origin of this confusion might have been introduced in some dictionaries ["El error fue inducido por Erize (el viejo), si mal no recuerdo, hacia mediados de la decada del 40... Hay que recordar que Erize, un argentino nacido en la pampa obtuvo su informacion revisando textos y conversando con indigenas pampeanos y la publico en su "Diccionario Araucano" el que he comparado con el de Augusta y con otros textos, encontrando varias discrepancias entre sus afirmaciones y lo que recogieron los estudiosos que realizaron su labor en Chile."]

Moreover, Prof. Gonzalez adds that in Argentina the origin of the Mapuche speaking people was the cultural mixture of sedentary and nomadic people with different cosmological visions. He consulted many Mapuche speaking persons of the different peoples of the cultural region embraced by the Mapuche language (these are actually different people sharing a common language). He consulted people from the low-land, sea-side, and mountain-side in the provinces of Arauco, Malleco, Cautin, Valdivia y Osorno and Chiloe.

In general he found agreement in the version of "Yepun" meaning the Evening Star (i.e. the planet Venus during its evening appearance), with disagreement in some Huilliche sources from Chiloe. In the aforementioned letter to Maxime Boccas of March 8, 1999, and received by Rodrigo de Castro (ESO-Santiago), Prof. Gonzalez explains that Yepun is a word composed of "yeln" (to carry) and "pun" (the night). [Isabel Osorio (ESO-Paranal) notes from a web-based dictionary that "ye" means "to bring"]. This indicates that Yepun is the one that "carries" or "brings" the night; this clearly points to the "evening star" (Venus in its evening appearance).

Prof. Gonzalez finishes by expressing some doubts ["No discuto ni rechazo el valor del nombre propuesto, solo pongo en duda la interpretación de Erize que algunos textos escolares no bien revisados suelen repetir, situaci´on que atribuyo a desconocimiento de las fuentes chilenas."]

More recently, we received through David Tytell, Assistant Editor of the journal "Sky & Telescope" the concerns of the US linguist Dr. Carl Masthay (St. Louis, Missouri). Dr. Masthay claims that the word "Yepun" really means the "Evening Star", supporting this by the same dictionary by Esteban Erize ("Diccionario comentado Mapuche-Espanol". Araucano pehuenche pampa picunche rancülche huilliche, Bahia Blanca, Editorial Yepun, 1960. 550 pp.). In this dictionary, according to Dr. Masthay, "Yepun" is translated as "lucero de la noche" (literally the "night's bright star"). This is very interesting, since his reference is the same dictionary that was claimed by Prof. Gonzalez to have introduced the confusion among the scholars by assigning "Yepun" the meaning of the star "Sirius".

In view of this, I consulted the very authoritative dictionary of Fray Felix José de Augusta (Diccionario Araucano, Tomo Primero, Segunda Edición, Padre Las Casas, Editorial San Francisco, 1966). He was a German priest and medical doctor that arrived as a missionary to work among the Mapuche people at the end of the XIX century. Soon he realised that the best way to spread the Christian message was to use the native language and he thus dedicated much of his energy on producing a number of good Mapuche language dictionaries and grammar textbooks for his fellow priests. In his dictionary, Fray Felix also translates "Yepun" as "el lucero de la noche".

Another very authoritative source I consulted is "Testimonio de un Cacique Mapuche" by Pascual Coña (Editorial Pehuen, 1973). This is the biography of a (at that time) 80-year old Mapuche man. His story was verbally transmitted to Fray Ernesto Wilhelm de Moesbach, another German missionary that came to Chile at the beginning of the XX century. He was proficient in the Mapuche language (that by the way is distinctively referred to as "Mapudungun"). The original text was dictated in the Mapudungun dialect of Coña and translated into Spanish, with both versions published side-by-side. Here we find (in the Spanish version) the following reference ["Yo conozco solo el lucero de la mañana (wueñyelfe) y de la noche (yepun). El Padre dice que esas dos son una misma; pero ¿como puede ser? Yo no lo comprendo"] Here Coña points directly to the fact that this "lucero" (bright star) is unequivocally the "Evening and Morning Stars" and not "Sirius" (another "bright star" or "lucero" in naive astronomy).

As a last resort, I consulted with José Ancan (Mapuche and with Mapudungun as his mother tongue) who works at the "Centro de Estudios y Documentacion Mapuche (LIWEN)" in Temuco (Lake District, Southern Chile). His written answer confirms this ["basandonos en informacíon de nuestra gente anciana (fuentes primarias para los historiadores) y según la lógica mapuche tradicional Yepun (lucero de la noche) y Wuñelfe (el lucero del amanecer) efectivamente corresponden a lo que la lógica científica llama Venus el planeta"]. He then adds that in ancient times some people had already identified these "two" stars as being effectively the same object, describing the same path in the sky, and thus using this object as an orientation aid during the night.

We have to remark that assigning two different names to Venus, depending on its appearance at dawn or dusk, is a very common "mistake" in many ancient cultures. For instance, we find in the Encyclopaedia Britannica: "Greek HESPEROS, also called VESPER, in Greco-Roman mythology, the evening star, son or brother of Atlas. He was later identified with the morning star, Phosphorus, or Eosphorus (Latin: Lucifer), the bringer of light."

I do not have access to a copy of the dictionary by Erize to check if Prof. Gonzalez or Dr. Masthay are right about Erize's interpretation of "Yepun". What seems to be clear is that someone in the past introduced some confusion about the word "lucero" (bright star) and assigned a wrong meaning to it (probably due to a poor knowledge of basic astronomy). I also think that we have enough information to support the idea that the correct translation of "Yepun" is indeed "Venus" as the "Evening Star".

One final remark to a general point raised by various persons who doubt that there are many speakers of Mapudungun in Chile and Argentina. There are reportedly no less than 800 000 Mapuche descendants in the south of Chile, with Mapudungun as their mother tongue. On the Argentinean side of the Andes there are probably between 300 000 and 500 000 Mapudungun-speaking natives, although a more conservative figure stated by European NGOs for the Mapuche-speaking population in Argentina is "over 200,000".

I hope that this information now settles the delicate issue of the original assignment of a wrong meaning to the name of one of the VLT telescopes.

Dr. Guillermo Delgado (*)
European Southern Observatory
Site Characterisation and Development
Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA)

(*) It is with deep regret that ESO announces that Guillermo Delgado, author of this article, passed away on July 26, 2002. As an ALMA engineer and scientist he was responsible for important parts of the ALMA site characterisation. He contributed significantly to the ALMA site development, such as ALMA radio frequency interference protection and ALMA communication studies. We were all impressed by his enthusiasm and commitment and are grateful for his work at ESO.

Some related weblinks