AS IS generally known, Señor, many bad things are met with by night in the streets of the City; but this Wailing Woman, La Llorona, is the very worst of them all. She is worse by far than the vaca de lumbre--that at midnight comes forth from the potrero of San Pablo and goes galloping through the streets like a blazing whirlwind, breathing forth from her nostrils smoke and sparks and flames: because the Fiery Cow, Señor, while a dangerous animal to look at, really does no harm whatever--and La Llorona is as harmful as she can be!
Seeing her walking quietly along the quiet street--at the times when she is not running, and shrieking for her lost children--she seems a respectable person, only odd looking because of her white petticoat and the white reboso with which her head is covered, and anybody might speak to her. But whoever does speak to her, in that very same moment dies!
The beginning of her was so long ago that no one knows when was the beginning of her; nor does any one know anything about her at all. But it is known certainly that at the beginning of her, when she was a living woman, she committed bad sins. As soon as ever a child was born to her she would throw it into one of the canals which surround the City, and so would drown it; and she had a great many children, and this practice in regard to them she continued for a long time. At last her conscience began to prick her about what she did with her children; but whether it was that the priest spoke to her, or that some of the saints cautioned her in the matter, no one knows. But it is certain that because of her sinnings she began to go through the streets in the darkness weeping and wailing. And presently it was said that from night till morning there was a wailing woman in the streets; and to see her, being in terror of her, many people went forth at midnight; but none did see her, because she could be seen only when the street was deserted and she was alone.
Sometimes she would come to a sleeping watchman, and would waken him by asking: "What time is it?" And he would see a woman clad in white standing beside him with her reboso drawn over her face. And he would answer: "It is twelve hours of the night." And she would say: "At twelve hours of this day I must be in Guadalajara!"--or it might be in San Luis Potosí, or in some other far-distant city--and, so speaking, she would shriek bitterly: "Where shall I find my children?"--and would vanish instantly and utterly away. And the watchman would feel as though all his senses had gone from him, and would become as a dead man. This happened many times to many watchmen, who made report of it to their officers; but their officers would not believe what they told. But it happened, on a night, that an officer of the watch was passing by the lonely street beside the church of Santa Anita. And there he met with a woman wearing a white reboso and a white petticoat; and to her he began to make love. He urged her, saying: "Throw off your reboso that I may see your pretty face!" And suddenly she uncovered her face--and what he beheld was a bare grinning skull set fast to the bare bones of a skeleton! And while he looked at her, being in horror, there came from her fleshless jaws an icy breath; and the iciness of it froze the very heart's blood in him, and he fell to the earth heavily in a deathly swoon. When his senses came back to him he was greatly troubled. In fear he returned to the Diputacion, and there told what had befallen him. And in a little while his life forsook him and he died.
What is most wonderful about this Wailing Woman, Señor, is that she is seen in the same moment by different people in places widely apart: one seeing her hurrying across the atrium of the Cathedral; another beside the Arcos de San Cosme; and yet another near the Salto del Agua, over by the prison of Belen. More than that, in one single night she will be seen in Monterey and in Oaxaca and in Acapulco--the whole width and length of the land apart--and whoever speaks with her in those far cities, as here in Mexico, immediately dies in fright. Also, she is seen at times in the country. Once some travellers coming along a lonely road met with her, and asked: "Where go you on this lonely road?" And for answer she cried: "Where shall I find my children?" and, shrieking, disappeared. And one of the travellers went mad. Being come here to the City they told what they had seen; and were told that this same Wailing Woman had maddened or killed many people here also.
Because the Wailing Woman is so generally known, Señor, and so greatly feared, few people now stop her when they meet with her to speak with her--therefore few now die of her, and that is fortunate. But her loud keen wailings, and the sound of her running feet, are heard often; and especially in nights of storm. I myself, Señor, have heard the running of her feet and her wailings; but I never have seen her. God forbid that I ever shall!
This legend is not, as all of the other legends are, of Spanish-Mexican origin: it is wholly Mexican--a direct survival from primitive times. Seemingly without perceiving--certainly without noting--the connection between an Aztec goddess and this the most widely distributed of all Mexican folk-stories, Señor Orozco y Berra wrote:
"The Tloque Nahuaque [Universal Creator] created in a garden a man and a woman who were the progenitors of the human race.... The woman was called Cihuacohuatl, 'the woman snake,' 'the female snake'; Tititl, 'our mother,' or 'the womb whence we were born'; Teoyaominqui, 'the goddess who gathers the souls of the dead'; and Quilaztli, implying that she bears twins. She appears dressed in white, bearing on her shoulder a little cradle, as though she were carrying a child; and she can be heard sobbing and shrieking. This apparition was considered a bad omen." Referring to the same goddess, Fray Bernardino de Sahagun thus admonished (circa 1585) the Mexican converts to Christianity: "Your ancestors also erred in the adoration of a demon whom they represented as a woman, and to whom they gave the name of Cioacoatl. She appeared clad as a lady of the palace [clad in white?]. She terrified (espantada), she frightened (asombraba), and cried aloud at night." It is evident from these citations that La Llorona is a stray from Aztec mythology; an ancient powerful goddess living on--her power for evil lessened, but still potent--into modern times.
She does not belong especially to the City of Mexico. The belief in her--once confined to, and still strongest in, the region primitively under Aztec domination--now has become localized in many other places throughout the country. This diffusion is in conformity with the recognized characteristic of folk-myths to migrate with those who believe in them; and in the case of La Llorona reasonably may be traced to the custom adopted by the Conquistadores of strengthening their frontier settlements by planting beside them settlements of loyal Aztecs: who, under their Christian veneering, would hold to--as to this day the so-called Christian Indians of Mexico hold to--their old-time faith in their old-time gods.
Being transplanted, folk-myths are liable to modification by a new environment. The Fiery Cow of the City of Mexico, for instance, not improbably is a recasting of the Basque vaca de lumbre; or, possibly, of the goblin horse, El Belludo, of Grenada--who comes forth at midnight from the Siete Suelos tower of the Alhambra and scours the streets pursued by a pack of hell-hounds. But in her migrations, while given varying settings, La Llorona has remained unchanged. Always and everywhere she is the same: a woman clad in white who by night in lonely places goes wailing for her lost children; a creature of evil from whom none who hold converse with her may escape alive.
Don Vicente Riva Palacio's metrical version of this legend seems to be composite: a blending of the primitive myth with a real tragedy of Viceregal times. Introductorily, he tells that for more than two hundred years a popular tale has been current in varying forms of a mysterious woman, clad in white, who runs through the streets of the City at midnight uttering wailings so keen and so woful that whoever hears them swoons in a horror of fear. Then follows the story: Luisa, the Wailer, in life was a woman of the people, very beautiful. By her lover, Don Muño de Montes Claros, she had three children. That he might make a marriage with a lady of his own rank, he deserted her. Through a window of his house she saw him at his marriage feast; and then sped homeward and killed--with a dagger that Don Muño had left in her keeping--her children as they lay sleeping. Her white garments all spattered with their blood, she left her dead children and rushed wildly through the streets of the City--shrieking in the agony of her sorrow and her sin. In the end, "a great crowd gathered to see a woman garroted because she had killed her three children"; and on that same day "a grand funeral procession" went with Don Muño to his grave. And it is this Luisa who goes shrieking at night through the streets of the City even now.
My friend Gilberto Cano is my authority for the version of the legend--the popular version--that I have given in my text. It seems to me to preserve, in its awed mystery and in its vague fearsomeness, the very feeling with which the malignant Aztec goddess assuredly was regarded in primitive times.
Legend of La Llorona
Janvier, Thomas A.
Legends of the City of Mexico
Janvier, Thomas A.
Harper & Brothers
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