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La Llorona: A pre-Hispanic ghost story and other modern tales

The tale of La Llorona, a woman who appears at night and cries for her children, had its origin in the Conquest and is an allegory for the disappearance of the pre-Hispanic world.

According to Nahua tradition, some years before the arrival of the Spanish to the Valley of Mexico, a series of mysterious natural phenomena occurred in Tenochtitlan, events that caused fear and were interpreted as a divine prediction of dark times.

These events were known by the Mexica as tetzahuitl : “something unusual, portentous, that causes astonishment, fear and is the announcement of some future event.”

As documented by Brother Bernardino de Sahagún, an early historian of Aztec accounts, there were eight tetzahuitl (also known as dire omens) that struck Tenochtitlan. The signs that predicted the fall of the Mexica Empire were related to natural phenomena, such as a lightning strike that destroyed the temple of Xiuhtecuhtli, a flood that raised the water level and hit the city, or the passage of a comet that illuminated the night sky and was seen by the emperor Montezuma himself.

However, none of these dark omens caused as much terror as the sixth event, which gave rise to the legend that is still part of the oral tradition in Mexico today.

The goddess Cihuacōātl is related to the figure of Tonantzin and is considered a mother goddess of the Nahuas.

According to the Florentine Codex, the sixth tetzahuitl was the nocturnal appearance of the goddess Cihuacóatl, who wandered Tenochtitlan crying and wailing for her children.

Cihuacóatl: the Mesoamerican origin of La Llorona

While the exact origin of the legend is unknown, many believe it dates back several centuries. The figure of La Llorona is thought to be one of the goddesses worshiped by the Aztecs. The goddess Cihuacōātl, which means “Snake Woman,” was said to dress in white and walk around at night crying. She was also considered to be an sinister omen. La Llorona has also been connected to the Aztec goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, meaning “the Jade-skirted one,” who was the goddess of the waters and had a reputation for drowning people. The Aztecs gained favor with Chalchiuhtlicue by sacrificing children to her.

Cihuacóatl was considered the protector of the cihuateteo, or spirits of women who died in childbirth. The source of the mourning that Cihuacóatl manifests in the dire omens is related to the cihuateteo, who acquired a divine presence when dying during childbirth. The Cihuateteo are depicted with skeletal faces and with eagle claws for hands.

The sixth Tetzahuitl is the presence of Cihuacóatl, who appeared at night with the cry of "Oh, my children, your destruction has come. Florentine Codex, lib. VIII

According to the Florentine Codex, an ancient document that describes the life of the Aztecs, the sixth omen is about a woman who wails fiercely to her people that they must flee the region. Most historians agree some of the omens appear to be related to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521 which led to the end of this ancient Mexican civilization.

“Sixth portent: many times a woman was heard crying, she was screaming. She was saying: “my children, we are leaving.” Sometimes she would say: “My children, where will I take you?”

La Llorona as Tonantzin y La Malinche

Artist unknown

The first record of this story that would later become the legend of La Llorona was made by Brother Bernardino de Sahagún, who described Cihuacóatl in the following way:

“…she appeared many times, as they say, as a composed lady with the attires used in the palace. They said that at night she screamed and bellowed in the air; This goddess is called Cihuacóatl, which means snake woman; and they also called her Tonantzin, which means our mother.”

Tonantzin is a title in the Nahuatl language that represents the maternal aspect of any Aztec goddess. Tonantzin is often linked to the Aztec goddess of the earth and corn, or Mother Earth. The revered Catholic Virgin of Guadalupe is often linked to Tonantzin. The actual site where the Virgin of Guadalupe reportedly appeared to Juan Diego was the site of a temple for Tonantzin before the Spanish destroyed it.

The La Llorona myth has also been connected to a real woman nicknamed La Malinche, who was the once enslaved Aztec mistress of Hernán Cortés during his conquest of Mexico. According to legend, La Malinche was reviled by her people due to her connection to Cortés, who left her after she gave birth to his child. She responded to his desertion by murdering their child. While there is historical evidence that La Malinche did exist, there is no proof that she killed her children.

Depictions of La Llorona

"Her hair, which has not been cut since she committed the gruesome crimes, wraps around her head and covers her face, forming a thick and woolly forest of locks; and her nails, more than an inch long, help her search for her children by raking through the dirty and muddy waters of the streams and ditches of the towns."

Art by Kaek

An alternative figure, described by Manuel Argüello Mora from Costa Rica, asserts that tradition dates the event of the drowning of La Llorona’s children to the year 1,000 of the Christian era, and consequently, the sorrowful wretch has wept continuously for almost nine centuries. Because of this, her face is marked by two scars, which continuously run, no longer with tears, but with blood, flowing from her eyes.

Art by Ana Sánchez / LVCTVS

She is most often presented as an apparition of a woman dressed in white; found by lakes or rivers, or sometimes at crossroads. She cries into the night for her children, whom she has killed, sometimes with a knife or dagger, but very often by drowning them. Her crime is usually committed in a fit of madness after having found out about an unfaithful lover or husband, who typically leaves her to marry a woman of higher status. After realizing what she has done, she usually kills herself. She is sometimes described as a lost soul, doomed to wander the earth forever, and to some she is a bogeywoman, used by parents to make children behave themselves.

“Retold Story of La Llorona #6 (La Llorona)” by Sonya Fe

La Llorona as a Victim?

Later versions of the legend conform more closely to the idea of the wronged woman. A 1917 play by Francisco C. Neve is set during the reign of Philip II (1556-1598). Luisa’s lover, Ramiro, is the (fictional) son of Cortés. He has fathered her son and is of much higher social status than her. Unbeknownst to Luisa, Ramiro is due to marry the wealthy daughter of a judge and wishes to take their son. Luisa is told of Ramiro’s plans and is driven mad, breaks up the wedding and kills their son with a dagger. She is hanged and vilified as a witch. Ramiro dies of sorrow and grief when La Llorona appears to haunt him.

Christopher Chacon, a well known parapsychologist, discovered from multiple sources a theory that strongly suggests an alternative version of the La Llorona narrative:

In a malicious act of spite and vengeance, an abusive unscrupulous father, NOT the mother, drowns their children. When the mother realizes this, she first attempts to save the drowned children, then in a grief-stricken state, commits suicide alongside them. Conspiring to conceal the event and use it to his benefit, the father fabricated the narrative that the mother committed the horrific multiple-murder/suicide.”

“This narrative makes clearer sense in contrast to the previous more-popular narrative that had no reliable sources. The distorted erroneous story fabricated by the father was embraced without question in that era and quickly propagated throughout Mexico over generations assisted by marianismo (a set of values concerning female gender roles) and machismo” states Chacon.

Contemporary Llorona sightings

Jaracuaro, Mexico

A mother and her children were staying with her sister and her family for an extended time and had moved into a rear room of the older house. Various family members began hearing strange sounds at night; footsteps, cabinets and doors opening and closing and muffled crying. At random times of the day and night, the muffled crying was accompanied by the faint apparition of La Llorona that would manifest only in brief glimpses. The family asked a priest to come bless the home, but the ghostly occurrences continued.

One night the mother of the children awoke to see one of her children talking with what appeared to be the shadow of La Llorona near her bed. The shocking incident brought the child to tell her mother that the nice lady had asked them to sleep in the front room and not the bedroom they are currently in. Though the mother decided to try and find a new place to stay, having nowhere to go immediately, she moved her children out of the back bedroom and into the house’s front living-room. Two evenings later, a thunderous cracking was heard, and the entire household awoke to find that the back bedroom’s walls and ceiling had collapsed entirely down into a type of sinkhole beneath the rear-end of the house.

Ajijic, Mexico

This is a story I heard personally: My mother’s caregiver at the time, Rosa, told us that her daughter, a skeptic, had finally come to believe in La Llorona . She recounted that last night she had heard dogs barking, then began to hear a woman wailing loudly, for a good while, then silence, then dogs barking again. She said her husband had elbowed her and asked if she had heard something, but she was frozen in terror under the covers. Rosa's daughter began to pray a rosary and continued to pray until daylight. The next day, Rosa explained that her daughter lives across the street from where I had seen her this morning sitting at the foot of el Tianguis, the market, just two blocks from La Laguna, the lake. Apparently, this house had once been visited by Pancho Villa and had harbored revolutionaries during the war. Perhaps this location was a safe house for other ghosts as well...

La Llorona urban legends

  • When La Llorona stops at the door or window of a house, it is an omen that the inhabitants of the house will go through many sorrows and sadness.

  • It is said that when La Llorona's cries are heard nearby it is because she is actually far away , and if she is heard far away it is a sign that she is close.

  • Some say if you hear a pack of dogs suddenly barking as they run down a dark street, La Llorona is near.

There are hundreds of tales of La Llorona from throughout Latin America and even from north of the border. Have you ever thought you heard her screams? Do you believe La Llorona will get you si no te portas bien? Do you have cuentos to share?

Photo by Ketzally Alcala/ Las Fotos Project

La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, (Pullover on Adi, at left) is a tortured spirit that haunts Mexican folklore and has been re-told in various forms throughout Latin America. The legend of La Llorona is about a woman who is trapped between this world and the afterlife, searching for what she has lost. In this pumpkin colored pullover, she is illustrated by a bleeding calavera surrounded by vibrant tropical foliage.

The Legend of La Llorona (Zip Cardigan on Geo, at right) begins with the jade goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, who ruled over water. The Aztecs honored her by sacrificing their children in return for abundant water for their fields. She is represented by a bleeding calavera surrounded by jungle foliage, human hearts and an Aztec symbol for water.

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