Tag Archives: legends

Myths and Legends of Mexico:The Little People

By Brooke O’Connor

Around the world, we find stories of “Little People” known as fairies, gnomes, goblins, sprites and a myriad of other names. They are usually associated with spiritual or supernatural powers. Some are considered helpers for nature and humans, while others may be maleficent.

Mexico’s Duende

Mexico has its own brand of creatures from pre-Hispanic culture, called duende in Spanish. Each region has a different species, with particular personalities and names. It’s interesting to note that in Spanish, if someone has charisma and charm, they are said to have “duende.”

Most creatures are described as small like a child, but with an old man’s face. Some can disappear at will, and some will camouflage into a full-sized (but short) old man. It is said, if an old man asks you for food, or a little money, it could be a duende. If you don’t pay the ask, there will be chaos. Maybe your crops won’t grow, or your car will break down. Mostly they’re causing mischief, but there can be danger. The duende seem to be attached to certain natural areas, but can be coaxed to leave with proper gifts and respect.

The most well-known of these legendary Mexican creatures are the alux (plural aluxob) from the Yucatán. The Aztecs called a similar but younger creature chanekeh (chaneque) or ohuican chaneque, which means “those who inhabit dangerous places” or the “owners of the house.” In Oaxaca, the Zapotecs call them huíchaa; they are nocturnal creatures and can be shapeshifters, taking the form of a jaguar, bat, snake, etc.

The similarities of these creatures with those represented in other stories from around the world is astounding. Almost enough to make you believe they may be real. In fact, I believe they may have been playing with me as I researched for this article.

A Witness from the Yucatán

My first exploration into this topic was over a long brunch, with a table of people from six countries. Each person shared their childhood stories, cultural perspective, and indigenous names for the creatures. Our friend from the Yucatán was most animated as he recounted what happened to him. He’s almost a grandfather now, but he doesn’t just have faith in their existence; he knows. We’ll call him José for the sake of anonymity.

José grew up in a traditional Mayan family, away from the cities, and in harmony with nature and the cycles of life. As a boy, he was regularly part of hunting expeditions. Sometimes at night, he was told to stay in the truck because the jungle is dangerous. The men were never gone too long. He was raised on the stories of the aluxob, who were curious, naughty, and liked to scare people. Humans must be careful not to infringe on alux territory, and offerings should be given to placate them.

One night, José locked the doors of the truck, as usual. He waited for the men to return. Normally, he waited an hour or less, but hours passed by. Then he heard a sound. He looked out the windows on every side, expecting to see men returning. He saw nothing. No movement in the bush, no words or human voices. The only thing he heard was a garbled whispering, in a language he didn’t understand.

He kept looking out each window, until he heard scratching on the bumper, and the vehicle started to rock back and forth. Then the whispering, became an unhuman cackle, and he hid under a blanket until it stopped. At some point, the rocking and cackling became whispers again. Then silence. No rustling of the bush, but he had a sense he was alone.

He stayed under the blanket for another hour. The men came back tired, and empty handed. That was unusual. José’s family is convinced the aluxob were not happy they were hunting that night. The family didn’t bring an offering, and they trespassed. They never did it again.

And from Huatulco …

I was intrigued by José’s story, and asked a local guide if he had any legends to share. He said he didn’t have legends, only experiences. I’ll call this guide Marco.

Marco grew up in the hills before Huatulco became a tourist area. He ran barefoot with his friends, and explored every inch of what we now call the Magic Waterfalls. His family taught him the dangers and beauty of the jungle: how to identify a poisonous snake, what trees to use for medicine, and the signs of the duende.

Sometimes there was screaming coming from the gullies at night. It sounded like a young child, injured or desperately lost. The cries happened when young men were walking on the road in the dark, alone. They knew the screams were a trap. Huíchaa tried to trick them, and they hurried home. Sometimes Marco saw an old man, someone unfamiliar, following him on a path. After a few minutes, Marco turned around to see the man had become a dog and went into the bush. Marco’s friends had similar stories. This was part of growing up in rural Mexico.

People may say these are imaginations of basic and uneducated minds. Yet Marco got a higher education in the U.S., then returned home to be of service to his people. He is convinced there is something not human, and not animal, living in the jungle.

Even in Oaxaca City

When I went to Oaxaca City, and met with an elderly guide, I posed the same questions about local myths and legends. This man speaks Zapotec languages, and Spanish as well as English. His profound knowledge of pre-Hispanic culture was invigorating and humbling. He avoided my questions at first. I thought it was a language barrier. Then I used a translator to be sure he understood me. He looked into my eyes, exhaled slowly, and told me I should stick to thoughts about the alebrije.

Alebrije are not legendary pre-Hispanic creatures, but an artistic endeavor from the 1930s. A man named Pedro Linares was very ill, and had dreams about fantastical creatures while he was sleeping. When he recovered, he used cardboard and papier-mâché to create the hybrid animals. He painted them with the psychedelic colors from his dreams, and caught the eye of a gallery owner in southern Mexico. Famous artists like Frieda Kahlo promoted his work, and soon the traditional wood carving artists of Oaxaca were producing alebrije from soft, easily carved copal wood. We see this beautiful art form alive and well today. We have some brilliant artists in Huatulco. Alebrije are not duende, so why would the elderly guide tell me to only think about them?

After returning to Huatulco, I researched everything I could online. Unfortunately, the Zapotec languages are very different from Spanish or other languages I know.* Most information about huíchaa are passed down through oral tradition. Videos and written material are mostly in Zapotec, and our modern tools don’t translate them. What I could find in Spanish, I translated and cross referenced. Yet in the back of my mind, I saw the elder guide, and his piercing eyes telling me to back off. However, I committed to this article, I wasn’t going to stop.

That’s when things started to happen.

I was at the beach for a morning swim. The dry bag was packed and locked, after I got out of the car. I didn’t open it again, until it was time to get back into the car. The bag was in view, as I swam. With my daily exercise done, I grabbed the bag, and walked to the parking lot. At the car, I realized the keys were missing. I emptied the bag. I only put four items in the bag. How could keys get lost? The car won’t lock if the keys are in it, so I knew they weren’t inside. No holes in the bag. The bag was securely folded down and locked shut when I retrieved it.

I retraced my steps to the beach, baffled by how the keys could be anywhere but inside a locked bag. I reached the exact spot where I’d left my things. There in the sand, were the keys, half buried, with a small footprint over the top. I wish now I had taken a picture. I was so shaken by the keys being in the sand, it didn’t occur to me at the time.

I examined the bag, it’s water tight. There’s no way the keys fell out. There were no children on the beach, it was early morning. A child wouldn’t have been able to close the bag. It was a bit of a struggle for me. The bag showed no signs of being opened, and the emergency money was still there.

Various things in my house have gone missing also. I will eventually find them, in some obscure place. We have no children, guests or pets moving things. It’s hard not to wonder if I’ve stirred the duende world.

I’m not saying I believe in huíchaa, but from now on, I will be leaving a small token of my appreciation every time I go to the beach. I hear they like fruit. If the huíchaa don’t eat it, the iguanas will.

*Ed. Note: The Córdoba branch of the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) has an online Zapotec/English/Zapotec dictionary, good for looking up individual words (https://www.iifilologicas.unam.mx/cordova/zapEsp.php).

Pre-Hispanic Legends that Explained the Natural World*

By Kary Vannice

Historically, every culture in the world has passed down myths and legends to explain the origins of different elements of our natural world. Here are a select few that originate from the region of Mexico.

The Legend of the Bat

The story goes that, long ago, the bat was the most beautiful bird in nature. The bat, seeing that other birds also had beautiful feathers, decided to go up to heaven to ask the Creator to fill his body with the most beautiful plumage. The Creator had no feathers to give him, so instead gave him permission to go down to Earth and claim a feather from each bird.

Back on land, the bat only selected the birds with the most beautiful feathers. And soon, he had filled his body with feathers of many different colors and shapes. From that moment on, the bat boasted about its exquisite feathers in front of everyone and believed that it was superior to the rest of the birds. He even humiliated them.

The Creator perceived the proud attitude of the bat and decided to pluck its feathers. And when he flapped his wings, his plumage instantly shed from his skin. And all the other birds witnessed the shower of colored feathers.

It is for this reason the bat now has no feathers and lives in caves so as not to remember the beautiful colors it once had and lost.

The Legend of the Hummingbird

When the gods created the world, they assigned a task to everything that inhabited it. Stones, trees, and animals all had a mission. But when they finished creating the universe, they realized that they had forgotten something essential: a being who had the task of carrying wishes and thoughts from one place to another, a messenger.

The gods then realized that they had run out of corn and mud, materials with which they had created all the other beings. It was then that they found a piece of jade and carved it into the shape of a small arrow. Then they blew on it, and it went flying off at full speed. The small piece of jade became a hummingbird.

Legend has it that the delicacy of this being allowed it to approach the flowers without moving a single one of its petals and that all the colors of the rainbow shone in its plumage. In addition to being the messengers of the gods, hummingbirds also became the bearers of human thoughts and desires, including messages from the dead.

The men then tried to capture the bird and adorn themselves with its feathers. But the gods got angry and forbade it, telling them that any man who caught a hummingbird would be punished. That is why hummingbirds have never been captive birds of man.

Since then, it is said that the proximity of a hummingbird is good luck. But not only that, its presence also indicates that someone has wished you well and that the bird, as light as it, would carry your thoughts and desires from one place to another.

The Legend of the Cempasúchil (Mexican Marigold)

An old story says that, many years ago, there lived two young people in love: the girl Xóchitl and the boy Huitzilin.

One day, the boy climbed to the top of a mountain seeking the blessing of the Sun God to ensure their love story would last forever. There, Tonatiuh fulfilled the couple’s wish and blessed their love.

Sometime later, Huitzilin had to go to war, and Xóchitl waited for his return. But the young man never returned, and Xóchitl spent her days grieving.

Legend has it that, seeing that the girl was so sad, the Sun God decided to transform her into a beautiful flower. Soon, a hummingbird perched on the petals of the flower, yellow as the sun. The flower immediately recognized her beloved Huitzilin, who returned transformed into a precious bird.

The Legend of the Firefly

A long, long time ago in the Mayab (Earth in its beginnings), there was a man who could cure all diseases. The news spread, and soon many people came to him seeking healing. To cure their ills, he would take out a small green stone from his pocket and whisper a few words to it. This was enough to cure them.

But one day, the man went out for a walk in the jungle. He walked so much that he became very tired. So, he decided to sleep for a while under a tree. But after a few minutes, a heavy rain woke him up, and he ran toward his house, and in his haste, the green stone fell out of his pocket.

Arriving at his house, he found a woman was waiting for him. She needed him to heal her child. But when he went looking for his stone, he didn’t find it. And he began to wonder how he would find something so small in such a big jungle.

“I know!” said the hopeful man, “I’ll ask Cocay to help!”

Cocay was a small but very agile and fast-flying insect. And he knew every corner of the jungle very well!

Cocay gladly volunteered to look for the stone. He searched in every corner of the jungle among the leaves and grass. He searched among the branches of the trees and the water of the creek. And despite being exhausted, Cocay did not want to stop. When night fell, Cocay cried inconsolably because he wanted to keep looking, but he could no longer see. Then, all of a sudden, his little body began to glow and light up, and the tiny insect was able to keep searching … until he found the little green stone.

Very happy, Cocay took the stone to its owner. The healer, upon seeing the little insect shine, felt so proud that he told him: “You have shown your dedication, effort, and perseverance. You have your own light, little Cocay, and from now on, you will always have it. Your body will shine in the middle of the night.”

And from that day on, Cocay and all his family turned into fireflies.

The Legend of the Toads and the Rain

One day, some farmers had planted corn, and they waited for it to rain. But the water never came. So, they thought to send a bird named Papán to go for the rain. And Papán the bird said “Yes,” and took off to bring the water back.

When the bird, Papán, got to where the rain was, he said, “”Hey, rain! The men who have planted corn need you.”

And the rain answered, “Yes, come on, of course. We will go together at the same time.

And the rain and Papán began the journey to where the corn was planted. But on the way, Papán couldn’t stand the rain because it was so thick. Papán fell from the sky with wet wings.

When Papán did not arrive with the water, the farmers thought to send another bird for the rain. It was a bird named Cheque Cheque.

When Cheque Cheque got to where the rain was, he said, “Hey, rain. I have come for you. You are sorely missed where the farmers have planted the corn.”

Then the rain replied, “Okay, I’ll go where I’m needed. Only we must go together at the same time.”

And the two set out for the sown field. But, along the journey, Cheque Cheque couldn’t stand the rain either; and he too fell from the sky with soaked wings.

So, the farmers thought and thought about who to send for the water. After much thought, they decided to invite the toads.

The toads agreed to go for the rain. And, as they were organized, they advised each other.

“Let’s see, big-footed toad. You are going to put yourself on the hill of that hill. You, dwarf toad, are going to stand on the top of the next hill. And you, big-mouthed toad, will stand on the last hill of the road.”

When the chubby-cheeked toad arrived to where the rain was, he said, “I’ve come for you, rain. They need you a lot where the corn is planted.”

“But how will we go together? Do you fly like a bird?” asked the rain.

“I don’t fly like the birds. But I jump very high. And, from jump to jump, I will take you to where the corn has been planted. And so that you know the way, I will sing on each hill. Wherever you listen to my song, there you will go.”

The rain agreed, and the two began the journey. The chubby-cheeked toad jumped very high and lost sight of the rain.

Then, the rain heard the song of the big-footed toad on the first hill. And there he went. Next, the same rain heard the song of the dwarf toad on the next hill, and she continued her journey there. Finally, the rain heard another song. It was the song of the big-mouthed toad waiting for her on the last hill. And that is where the water went.

Thus, singing to the rain, among all the toads, they took the water to where it was needed. And the farmers were very grateful to them.

Since then, every time it’s going to rain, the toads begin to sing.

*Translated from various sources on the internet.

Monarchs Butterflies Migrate, Marigolds Bloom: Myths, Legends, and Politics of the Day of the Dead

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

If you spend time in Oaxaca, you’ve heard of El Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Maybe as a snowbird, you’ve even arrived in Mexico in time to watch or participate in the celebrations; The Eye has published any number of articles on it. This year’s Day of the Dead – it’s really two days – takes place on November 1 and 2, 2022.

The general idea is that the border between the world of the spirits and the world of the living dissolves, allowing the departed souls to return and celebrate with those they left behind. People prepare altars (ofrendas) at grave sites or in their homes, decorated with mementos of their loved ones, along with food and drink for the celebration and return journey. November 1 is thought to be when the souls of children come back to visit, and November 2 is the return of the souls of adults.

The Disputed Origins of the Day of the Dead

Past historians have mostly proposed that the holiday is “syncretic,” a combination of the traditions of two (or more) cultures. In this case, the synthesis combines the pre-Hispanic Day of the Dead, intended by various ancient indigenous peoples as a remembrance of the dead, with the imported Catholic traditions of the conquistadores, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. This is the way the Day of the Dead is taught in schools, and how it has been listed in Mexico’s “Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” a program of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).

Today, however, Mexican historians are less likely to agree that what we see now is genuinely a product of any classic indigenous culture (dated generally from 500 BCE – 1521 CE, when the Aztec empire fell to Cortés), or even of the synthesis between indigenous and colonial events. In a special issue (2006) of Cuadernos Patrimonio Cultural y Turismo (Notebooks of Cultural Heritage and Tourism), a publication of the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y los Artes (National Council for Culture and the Arts, now the Secretariat for Culture), fifteen academics of various disciplines, mostly history and anthropology, explore the issues involved in understanding the Day of the Dead.

Maybe it was syncretic. Maybe it came from similar celebrations in Europe, brought over by the Spaniards. Its importance may lie in the rituals that “tame death” and ensure continuation of life as it was. Maybe it’s a 20th-century evolution of President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río’s program to promote nationalism and national pride through indigenismo, the valuing of all things indigenous, which is a story in itself for some other time.

Mythic Origins of El Día de los Muertos

Despite the disagreements on how the Day of the Dead came to be, there is no doubt that Mexico’s ancient peoples saw life and death as continuous, and had their own version of Day of the Dead. In the high plains of south-central Mexico, it was believed that death destroyed the body but the soul was indestructible. Many of these tales of the afterlife share common ideas with the mythologies of other cultures.

People who died natural deaths entered the afterlife in Chicunamictlán, a nine-level underworld of the Land of the Dead. Depending on the cause of death, there were other destinations for the dead. Children went to Chichihuacuauhco, where they were fed by the Tree of Milk – they waited there to repopulate the world after the human race was destroyed (not sure why that was supposed to happen!). Warriors killed in battle and women who died in childbirth went to Ilhuuicatl-Tonatiuh, the Kingdom of the Sun. Those who died by water, including rain and lightning, went to Tlalocán, the Mansion of the Moon.

Souls bound for Chicunamictlán were cremated with a sacrificed dog who served as a guide and companion on the arduous, four-year journey to the last level, Mictlán. The dog was a red xoloitzcuintle, or xolo, the ancient hairless dog of Mexico. The xolo was created by a dog god called Xolotl, a dog-headed man whose province was fire and lightning and whose job it was to accompany the sun each day from dawn to dark, the “dark” representing the death of the sun. Xolotl bears a striking resemblance in appearance and responsibilities to a similar Egyptian dog-god called Anubis.

The dog was first tasked with carrying the soul across the great river Apanohuaya, counted as the second level. The remaining levels of the journey presented horrendous challenges – giant underwater lizards, flying arrows, paths paved with slashing obsidian shards, mountains crashing together. On the sixth level, for example, the defunct soul had to cross Tecoylenaloyan (the land of a thousand fierce wild beasts); if a beast caught the soul, the soul had to throw open its chest and let the beast eat its heart – reminiscent of the Greek myth of Prometheus, whom Zeus punished for giving fire to humans by chaining him to a high mountain rock and sending eagles to eat his liver every day.

Upon reaching Mictlán, the soul finally could achieve eternal rest or be condemned to suffer further. Eternal rest was darkness, a great commingling into a single common soul.
Back on earth, the families of departed souls celebrated Hueymiccaylhuitl, the great feast of the dead intended to help the soul on its journey to Mictlán. The families offered up food, water, and tools to help meet the challenges; the holiday also allowed the souls to return and visit with their families. Sound familiar? Perhaps those who downplay the ancient roots of Day of the Dead have been unduly influenced by the commercially constructed holiday we now see.

Marigolds and Monarchs

When you think of El Día de los Muertos, what color comes to mind? Could it be … orange??? The color of marigolds, the color of monarch butterflies, of candles to light the way through the darkness of the graveyard. Those orange marigolds and monarch butterflies are linked to Day of the Dead through several ancient legends and beliefs.

Because the annual migration of the monarch butterfly ends in the fall in central Mexico, often in the Reserva de la Biosfera de la Mariposa Monarca in Michoacán. Monarchs have long been associated with the Day of the Dead, providing the means for departed souls to return to their families. Legend has it that the souls of the departed travel in the wings of the monarchs, and those wings shed their orange color on the marigolds. Mexican marigolds (Tagetes erecta) are members of the aster family, and in ancient times bloomed in the fall, just in time to take their colors from the monarchs.

There is an Aztec tale of two young lovers, Huitzilin (humming bird) and Xóchitl (flower), who celebrated their love by climbing to the top of a mountain to leave offerings to the god of the sun, Tonatiuh. When the couple is torn apart by war, and Huitzilin dies in battle, Xóchitl climbs the mountain to beg Tonatiuh to reunite them for eternity. Tonatiuh turns Xóchitl into a beautiful flower, the color of the sun – that would be orange, people – and who should arrive but a hummingbird, who carried the soul of Huitzilin. When the hummingbird touched the flower, it opened its 20 petals and gave off a wonderful scent. Thus marigolds, called cempasúchil, lead the returning souls both with their color, so bright it lights their way, and their unmistakable, pungent scent.

Day of the Dead in the 20th Century – Politics and Economics

Before President Cárdenas started promoting the Day of the Dead as indigenous tradition, there was La Calavera Catrina (the elegant skeleton). She was created in 1910, amid the opening salvos of the Mexican Revolution, by the political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913). Posada created her to satirize both the poor women street vendors who had left off selling corn in favor of chickpeas, all the while wearing French hats, and the Mexican elites who fawned over all things European, especially fashion and culture, and patronized the empolvacas garbanceras (sellers of chickpea powder, used to lighten complexions). The elites were much encouraged in their European aspirations by the dictator José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori (ruled off and on from 1876-80, then from 1894 to 1911).

At the time, Posada’s Catrina received a bit of attention from the politically inclined, but got a big boost in 1947, when the renowned artist Diego Rivera painted the mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon in Alameda Central Park) on a wall in the muy-muy upscale restaurant in the Hotel Del Prado, one of Mexico City’s Art Deco masterpieces (after the 1985 earthquake, the mural was moved to Museo Mural Diego Rivera, adjacent to the Alameda).

As usual with Rivera’s work, the mural was nothing if not political. About 400 characters from the panorama of Mexican history parade through the Alameda, showing the brutalities of the conquest and colonialism, wars and revolutions, cruel dictatorships. The center of the mural shows La Catrina on the arm of her creator Guadalupe Posada, Frida Kahlo and a young Rivera, Porfirio Díaz (shown higher than an angel), all intended to be observed by elite patrons of the Hotel del Prado’s restaurant. What is notable about Rivera’s Catrina, and is perhaps the root of her popularity thereafter, is that Rivera gave her not fancy European fashion to wear, but a simple white dress from the Isthmus, much like one of Kahlo’s own. He blots out the fancy hat with huge white feathers – featherwork, particularly for headdresses, was a major art form for the Aztecs. These attributes ensured that La Catrina became a heroine to the Mexicans, fit for a starring role in the Day of the Dead.

The researchers who disagree on the origin of Day of the Dead do agree that commercialization, particularly tourism promotions, presents a great threat to the authenticity of Day of the Dead celebrations. However, accounts of New Spain written by Diego Durán (1537-88) and Bernardino Sahagún (1499-1590), Dominican and Franciscan friars, respectively, tell us that markets held in advance of the Day of the Dead in Tenochtitlán were bustling – Duran was “astounded” to see what local people spent to offer food, drink, and other goods to the souls of their dead. By the 1700s, that market had become so frenzied that the government had to step in with regulations for market operations and requirements for vendor permits.

Commercialization of the Day of the Dead has continued apace ever thereafter; by the early 20th century, both Mexican and U.S. anthropologists discovered holiday markets in rural villages, basically commercial regional fairs attracting shopers who traveled long arduous distances to sell their wares or make their purchases. By mid-century, Mexico’s tourism apparatus was promoting Day of the Dead to tourists from the U.S. and Europe, pointing out which regional celebrations offered the most authentic experience for the tourist. Ruth Heller-Tinoco, an associate professor of music at the University of California-Santa Barbara, investigated the commercialization of the Day of the Dead on the island of Janitzio (corn silk) in Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacán. The festival is that of the Purépecha, an indigenous group the Aztecs never managed to subjugate, so their celebration was considered the “purest” example. Heller-Tinoco concluded that “selling” Day of the Dead on Janitzio transformed what was a small community ritual into a tourist spectacle drawing over 100,000 tourists a year. You, too, can go – just Google it.

Of course, all this commercialization has ensured that Day of the Dead has survived, and even transformed, has been handed down to younger generations. In the last “normal,” i.e., pre-pandemic, Day of the Dead in 2019, Secretary of Tourism Miguel Torruco predicted that 829,000 Mexicans would travel, they would spend about $2 billion pesos (±US $104 million), and hotels in Mexico City would see an occupancy rate of nearly 90%. In 2021, when the pandemic showed signs of abating, about US $5 million was spent on marigolds in Mexico City.

Think Coco, the 2017 Pixar Animation Studios film released and promoted by Disney, in which the young Coco, in a “vibrant tale of family, fun, and adventure,” ends up in the Land of the Dead, learning from his departed ancestors the stories behind his family’s prohibitions on music – Coco wants to be a musician. All ends well, and Coco ranks in the top 20 highest grossing animated film ever – streaming today on Disney+.