The Saçi is arguably the most popular character in Brazilian folklore. He is a one-legged black or mulatto youngster 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 trap him or steal his magic cap. However his cap is often depicted as having a bad smell, most people who claimed to have stolen this cap often say they can never wash the smell away.
There are several variants of the myth, including:
- Saçi-pererê, black as coal (the best known)
- Saçi-trique, mulatto and more benign.
- Saçi-saçurá, with red eyes.
Saçi-pererê is also the name of a Brazilian cocktail consisting of 1/4 cup of cachaça and 3 tablespoons of honey, which is said to be good for the common cold.
Powers, weaknesses, and habits
An incorrigible prankster, the 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 the kitchen, the Saçi would spill all salt, sour the milk, burn the bean stew, and drop flies into the soup. If a popcorn kernel fails to pop, it is because the Saçi 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 Saçi.
Besides disappearing or becoming invisible (often with only his red cap and the red glow of his pipe still showing), the Saçi can transform himself into a Matitaperê or Matita Pereira, an elusive bird whose melancholic song seems to come from nowhere. One can escape a pursuing Saçi by crossing a water stream: the Saçi will not dare to cross, for then he will lose all his powers. Another way is to drop ropes full of knots; the Saçi will then be compelled to stop and undo the knots. One can also try to appease him by leaving behind some cachaça, or some tobacco for his pipe.
He is fond of juggling embers 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 puffing on his pipe (a feat comparable to the Headless Mule’s gushing fire from the nostrils).
Every dust devil, says the legend, is caused by the spin-dance of an invisible Saçi. 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 Saçi 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 Saçi who regains his freedom may become either a trustworthy guardian and friend, or a devious and terrible enemy.
Origins of the legend
While some claim that the Saçi myth originated in Europe in the 13th century such as the Monopod (creature), 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 forest’s silence with his loud shouts and whistles. He was originally a creature of the night, and indeed the Yaçi (jaˈsi) means “Moon” in Old Tupi.
This indigenous character was appropriated and transformed in the 18th century by the African slaves who had been brought in large numbers to Brazil. Farm slaves would tell Saçi stories to amuse and frighten the children, black and white. In this process the creature became black, his red hair metamorphosed into a red cap, and — like the African elders who usually told the tales — he came to be always smoking his clay-and-reed pipe. His name mutated into various forms, such as Saçi Taperê and Sá Pereira (a common Portuguese name), and eventually Saçi Pererê.
His red cap may have been inspired on the Phrygian cap which was at one time worn by Portuguese peasants. The Saçi-Pererê concept shows some syncretism with Christian elements: he bolts away when faced with crosses, leaving behind a sulphurous smell — classical attributes of the Devil in Christian folklore.
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. This may be more than just a coincidence, since many slaves were Muslims and thus presumably familiar with the Arabian tales. Moreover, the occupation of parts of the Portuguese territory (namely in the south) by the Muslim Moors, between the years 711 and 1249, provides another possible path for Arabian influence on the Saci legend.
With the purpose of countering the growing trend of adopting the American Halloween in Brazil, The Day of Saçi was created in 2005, and it is likewise commemorated on October 31. A tongue-in-cheek Society of Saçi Observers was also created.
Saçi in art and entertainment
The character remains quite popular in present-day urban culture, mainly due to the immensely popular children’s book O Saçi by Monteiro Lobato (1932).
In the 1960s, the one-legged gnome — by now “domesticated” into a prankish but inoffensive and lovable creature — was chosen by premier Brazilian cartoonist Ziraldo as the leading character of his comics magazine, O Saci Pererê. This original publication, the first of its genre to feature entirely “national” characters, was short-lived, but paved the way for other more successful Brazilian cartoonists like Angeli, Laerte, and Mauricio de Sousa.
Tom Jobim’s hit song Águas de Março mentions the Matita Pereira.
Nei Lopes’s samba song entitled Fumo de Rolo tells a tale of a fisherman being accosted by the sací while collecting reeds in the forest. The sací demands some tobacco for his pipe, but the poor fellow has lost his.
The Saci in science
A novel species of dinosaur, discovered in 2001 at Agudo (southern Brazil), was named sacisaur because the fossil skeleton was missing one leg.
The names of the Brazilian satellites SACI-1 and SACI-2 were backronyms on the character’s name.
Four retrotransposons in the DNA of the fluke Schistosoma mansoni were named Saci-1, Saci-2, Saci-3, and Perere, for their ability to jump around in the parasite’s genome
Since the Saci’s one-legged physique reminds us of people with a physical disability, a social network named SACI (an acronym of Solidariedade, Apoio, Comunicação e Informação, or Solidarity, Support, Communication and Information) was created at the University of São Paulo with the purpose of stimulating these four efforts towards the social and medical rehabilitation of physically disabled people.
The Saci as a Mascot
Despite being a one-leged creature, the Saci is believed to be very agile and powerful, always defeating his enemies. As so, it’s a Mascot of some sport clubs in Brazil, like Sport Club Internacional and Social Futebol Clube.