To conclude my series on Mexican Monstresses, who better than La Llorona, possibly the most famous Mexican legend of all? In this installment, I’ll talk about the possible origins (and some variations of the story) of this legendary fearsome female.
A lone woman with long black hair, dressed in white, who walks along the water’s edge (or in more modern versions, along a highway). She weeps and wails as she walks, crying out for her children, whom she murdered. Some say that to hear her cry means death. Some say that she will steal your children, to make up for her own. Others say that she is a siren, who lures men to their deaths.
Siren, sorrowful mother, child-snatcher, harbinger of doom: you can see aspects of the La Llorona legend in several of the fearsome females that I’ve featured in this series.
Many people believe that La Llorona’s legend derives from the Aztec goddess Cihuacoatl, the Serpent Woman, Aztec goddess of motherhood, midwives, and fertility. As I’ve written, Cihuacoatl was the ruler of the cihuateteo, the deified spirits of women who died in childbirth. The cihuateteo haunt the crossroads, seeking victims. They’ve been known to steal children and to drive their victims insane. Some say they seduce men. And Cihuacoatl was also associated with the closely related tzitzimime, whose queen, the goddess Itzpapalotl (“obsidian butterfly”), ruled the realm of heaven where the souls of dead babies went. Supposedly, Cihuacoatl would appear in the market with a crib on her back, and then disappear, leaving only the crib. When the other women in the marketplace looked in the crib, they would find only a flint knife — the kind used for sacrifices. And some say that Cihuacoatl prowled the market as a beautiful woman dressed in white, who would seduce young men, and then kill them.
There is also a story in Wikipedia (that I can’t find anywhere else), that Cihuacoatl is also the mother of the god Mixcoatl, and that she abandoned him at a crossroads. She often returns to the crossroads, weeping and searching for her son, but only finds a sacrificial knife. Mixcoatl (“cloud serpent”) was the god of the hunt, associated with the Milky Way; he brought fire to humanity. Depending on which legend you read, his mother was either Cihuacoatl or Itzpapalotl, who are both associated with childbirth and children.
Robert Barakat preferred the idea of the goddess Chalchiuhtliycue (“the jade-skirted one”) as the source of the La Llorona myth. Chalchiuhtliycue was a goddess of water: rivers, seas, and storms, and the wife (sister/wife?) of the rain god Tlaloc. Like Cihuacoatl, she was a goddess of childbirth. Aztec legend says that Chalchiuhtliycue destroyed the fourth world (we live in the fifth world) in a giant flood, turning all those who lived on the earth at the time into fish. According to Barakat, she would kill fishermen and other men who made their livelihood from water by drowning them in a foaming, swelling, whirlpool that sucked them under.
Noe Vela and David Bowles tell the legend of an Aztec goddess (they say she’s Cihuacoatl) who lives at the bottom of a lake and appears at night as a woman dressed in white. They say that she tried to warn the Aztecs of the upcoming conquest of Mexico with her cries.
The sixth portent and signal will be that several times and several nights, you will hear the voice of a woman who cries with a loud voice and says in a voice filled with much weeping and great sobs and sighs: “Oh my children! We are going to lose everything!” and other times she will say “Oh my children, where can I take you to hide you?”
— Roldan Peniche, quoting Historia de Tlaxcala by Muñoz Camargo
And John Bierhorst mentions the link between La Llorona and La Malinche, aka Doña Marina, the Nahua mistress of the conquistador Hernán Cortés, and mother of his first son. The La Malinche story says that when Cortes was ready to return to Spain, he wanted to take his son with him — but not his mistress. Crazed with anger and grief at her abandonment and at losing her child, La Malinche stabbed her son to death, and then killed herself.
When her spirit left her body, it cried ‘Aaaaayy!’ Ever since, her ghost has been wandering, and people everywhere hear her cry of pain. People call her La Llorona.
— John Bierhorst, The Hungry Woman: Myths and Legends of the Aztecs
Sound familiar? I think some versions of the story say that she drowned her children by Cortés, with the usual consequences.
Barakat gives a La Llorona tale, apparently originally from Ciudad Chihuahua, Mexico, where a young woman has an illegitimate child, and the child’s father takes the baby away and drowns it in a lake. Distraught, the woman drowns herself in the same lake. And now, in the summer, she appears in the lake, weeping and wailing. If a man sees her and tries to rescue her, she drifts further out into the lake, where he follows. Finally, when her would-be rescuer is far from shore and exhausted, she throws her arms around him and pulls him down under the surface, laughing as she avenges her murdered child.
Barakat also writes that in Brazil, along the Amazon, there is a legend of a woman’s voice crying in the jungle. If a man hears the voice and tries to follow it, he quickly gets lost forever, deep in the jungle. This is fairly similar to the Oaxacan stories of La Mala Hora that I shared here; note that in one of the versions I share, La Mala Hora walks along a river that crosses the town.
So many variations! The legend reaches from the southwestern United States, across Mexico, down into South America, and in addition to its most probably indigenous motifs, sometimes borrows from European folktale motifs as well. In my next post, I’ll share an especially interesting and unusual version that I found. Stay tuned!
Bierhorst, John. The Hungry Woman: Myths and Legends of the Aztecs, Quill, 1984.
Vela, Noé and David Bowles. Mexican Bestiary/Bestiario Mexicano, VAO Publishing, 2012 [Spanish/English]
Peniche B., Roldan. Bestiario Mexicano, Panorama Editorial, 1987 [Spanish]
Barakat, Robert A. “Wailing Women of Folklore”, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 82, No. 325 (Jul. – Sep., 1969) pp. 270-272
Leddy, Betty. “La Llorona in Southern Arizona”, Western Folklore, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Jul., 1948), pp. 272-277
Trejo Silva, Marcia. Fantasmario Mexicano, Editorial Trillas, 2009 [Spanish]
English and Spanish language Wikipedia
Top image: Young Woman on the Shore. Edvard Munch (1896). Source: WikiArt