The Many Origins of La Llorona

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.

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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.

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Malinalxochitl and the Founding of Mexico

The third installment in my mini-series Mexican Monstresses — fearsome females of Mexican legend.

Codex Borgia page 55
Detail from the Codex Borgia (not Malinalxochitl, but it seemed to get the idea across).
Source: Wikipedia

Malinalxochitl (“black grass flower”) was the sister of the god Huitzilopochtli, the founder of Mexico. While her brother ruled their people from the heavens, appearing to his priests in dreams, Malinalxochitl guided them in person. She was beautiful and mild-mannered, but also a powerful witch. She could kill a man just by looking at him, secretly eating his heart while he was still alive. Or, just at a glance, she could eat the calf of a person’s leg without his feeling the pain. Or sometimes she would twist a man’s eyesight so that he would hallucinate an enormous beast or some other terrifying thing. She was the kind of witch known in later times as a heart biter (teyollohcuani — more on them in a future post in this series), a calf snatcher, and an eye twister.

At night, when people were asleep, she would pick up a man and carry him outside the camp and drop him in front of a poisonous snake. Scorpions, centipedes, and spiders were also used by her in her evil work, and being a witch, she could transform herself into whatever bird or animal she wished. With all her dangerous powers she insisted on being worshipped as a goddess, and no one dared treat her otherwise.

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Mexican Monstresses: The Tzitzimime

The second installment in my mini-series Mexican Monstresses — fearsome females of Mexican legend: the Tzitzimime.

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Tzitzimitl, from Codex Magliabechano
Image: Wikipedia

The tzitzimime are fearsome, fleshless, skeleton women. They have claws for their hands and feet, and teeth and eyes at all their joints. They wear skirts decorated with skulls and crossbones, and necklaces strung with human hands and hearts. At the end of this age, the tzitzimime will come down from the heavens as terrible beasts, jaguars and dogs, to devour all of humanity before great earthquakes destroy the world.

Their queen is the goddess Itzpapalotl (“obsidian butterfly” or “clawed butterfly”), who rules the heaven for souls who died as infants. They are also associated with the goddess Cihuacoatl (goddess of motherhood and fertility, and queen of the cihuateteo — see my previous post) and in Mayan mythology, with Goddess O (Chac Chel — goddess of floods, storms, childbirth and medicine).

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Mexican Monstresses: The Cihuateteo

I got to wondering recently whether there are any indigenous succubi legends in the Southwest: the New Mexico/Arizona/Texas region, and by extension down into northern Mexico. I still haven’t found any specific to that region, but I did uncover all kinds of dangerous females of legend in Mexican (particularly Aztec) mythology. What I found was interesting enough to put aside the succubi search for a while. “Monstresses” is maybe not quite the right word to describe these beings (terrifying as they are) since many of them are deities, but I liked how the phrase sounded. The first installment of this mini-series: the cihuateteo.

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A cihateteotl (singular of cihuteteo)
Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.
Image: originally from http://www.tenochtitlan.com, retrieved from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine

Beware of the crossroads on a dark night! You may run into the cihuateteo.

The cihuateteo are the deified spirits of women who died in childbirth. On certain nights of the year (their feast days) they haunt the crossroads, seeking victims — especially young ones. On those nights, parents tell their children to hide inside, for the cihuateteo may steal them, leaving only a sacrificial knife in their place. They can cause sickness, paralysis, seizures, or insanity, and sometimes possess their victims’ bodies. They have also been known to seduce men, causing them to commit adultery and other sexual misbehavior. Some say that the legend of La Llorona is based on the cihuateteo.

To placate the cihuateteo, the Aztecs made them offerings on their feast days, either at their altars or at the crossroads: bread in the shape of butterflies or lightning, of little tamales called xucuichtlamatzoalli, and toasted corn called ízquitl.

Cihuateteo have pale skeletal faces, chalk-white limbs, and claws for hands. They wear gold earrings and horned headdresses, rippling black blouses, white sandals, and skirts embroidered in many colors.


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Chac Mool

I’ve been awash in translations of Spanish-language literature lately (more on that in a future article); it’s been fascinating reading. One of the things I’ve learned in my reading is that Carlos Fuentes wrote quite a few short stories. In fact, his first book was a collection of fantastic fiction called Los Dias Enmascarados (The Masked Days), which, to my knowledge, was never translated into English. Given the general preference of the reading public for novels over short stories, I’m not surprised, and such early writing would probably be considered only a minor work of his — not the optimal candidate for the effort of translation. But hope springs eternal, and so I had to look around….

Sure enough, a little digging uncovered an English rendering of the short story “Chac Mool“, translated by Jonah Katz, currently a professor of phonetics and linguistics at West Virginia University. “Chac Mool” was first published in Los Dias Enmascarados in 1954, then again in the 1973 collection Chac Mool y otros cuentos (Chac Mool and other stories — also never translated).

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A chacmool is a particular form of Mesoamerican sculpture: a figure of a man reclining on his back, upper body supported by his elbows and knees bent. His hands are on his abdomen, holding a dish or a bowl for accepting ritual offerings. His head is facing to the side. Chacmools have been found throughout central Mexico and the Yucatan, down into Central America. Chacmools are often associated with the Aztec rain god Tlaloc or with the similar Mayan rain god Chac (or Chaac). Both these rain gods are associated with human sacrifice (the bowl the chacmool holds is often a cuauhxicalli: a bowl to receive human hearts).

In Fuentes’ story, the protagonist, Filbert (Filiberto in the original), buys a chacmool (or as the story puts it, a replica of the Chac Mool, used as a proper noun) from some little junk shop, and brings it home. After the Chac Mool arrives, the water pipes mysteriously burst and the roof springs leaks in the rain. Filiberto discovers that in all this moisture, the stone idol seems to be turning into flesh — a rain god coming to life. Slowly, the Chac Mool turns Filiberto into his slave….

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