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La Llorona: Roots, Branches, and the Missing Link from Spain

Pen and ink illustration of a woman

The Weeping Woman who appeared in Tenochtitlan in 1509, according to Bernardino de Sahagún’s informants. This drawing, from the 1570s, appears in the Florentine Codex, and could be the first illustration of La Llorona.

This is the second blog post in a series about La Llorona, the weeping woman who haunts Mexican and other Latinx cultures. The series will be published in time for Día de Muertos (aka Día de los Muertos) 2021. [Find the whole series at this link!]

In this post, I’ll show some of the story’s long history, especially in Mexico. I’ll give links to primary sources from the 1570s showing the story was already present among Indigenous Mexicans at that time and earlier. I’ll also present what I believe is new evidence of a strong link for some La Llorona stories with Spain.

As I pointed out last time, stories about La Llorona generally fall into two categories: encounter stories, which relate either a specific meeting with La Llorona or explain what a typical encounter is like; and biographical or origin stories, which usually state that La Llorona is a ghost, and explain who she was when she was alive. Of course, some stories have features of both types, but in most Llorona tales one of these themes predominates.

Interestingly, scholars have suggested that these two types of La Llorona stories may come from different streams of tradition, one of them indigenous to Mexico and the other brought from Europe. Consider for example, this story:

The people heard a weeping woman night after night. She passed by in the middle of the night, wailing and crying out in a loud voice: “My children, we must flee far away from this city!” At other times she cried: “My children, where shall I take you?”

This certainly falls within the range of details we would expect in a traditional La Llorona encounter story. But it’s actually a Náhuatl account of a bad omen that occurred in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico city) in 1509, ten years before the arrival of Hernán Cortés and his Spanish troops. The account was collected by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún from Náhuatl speakers in Mexico who lived through the events they described. The interviews probably occurred in the 1550s and were included in both languages in his work Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain), also known as The Florentine Codex, Book XII.)

Two color illustrations of women in Aztec garb

Goddesses from the 16th Century Florentine Codex. On the left is “Cioacoatl,” identified elsewhere in the codex as being the weeping spirit, as well as a child-eating demon.

(I’m happy to say the Library of Congress has helped place this magnificent illustrated manuscript from the 1570s online as part of the World Digital Library, as The General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. My references to this work will refer to this online manuscript. My translations below are my own translations from Sahagún’s Spanish, but because I understand that the Spanish differs significantly from the Náhuatl for the passage above, that translation above is Lysander Kemp’s, and comes from Miguel León Portilla’s The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico.)

Statue of a woman in Aztec garb and headdress possible representing a serpent's mouth.

A stone statue of Cihuacoatl, an Aztec fertility goddess. Here she emerges from the mouth of a serpent holding an ear of maize in her left hand. Discovered in Cuernavaca. Dated 1325 – 1521 CE. Owned by the Museo Nacional Antropologia. By Madman2001. Shared to Wikimedia Commons with a Creative Commons license.

To find out the identity of this wailing spirit, we look to Book VIII of the Codex, where there is a passage that scholars generally take to refer to the same events:

In the days of this same Motecuçoma it happened that the demon Cioacoatl walked about weeping at night in the streets of Mexico. Everyone heard it saying: ‘My children, woe is me that I must soon leave you.’

Although in this passage he calls her a demon, in book I Sahagún describes Cioacoatl (now conventionally spelled Cihuacoatl) as one of the most important goddesses of the Aztecs. She is associated with small children, and a crib or cradle was one of her distinguishing marks. Sahagún’s description in book I says:

And they also say that she carries a crib with her, as someone would who carried her child in it, and she goes to the market, among the other women. And disappearing, she would leave behind the crib. When the other women discovered that the crib had been forgotten there, they would look to see what was inside: and there would be a flint, like iron, of the rough kind with which they killed those they sacrificed. By this, they understood that it was Cihuacoatl who had left it there.

One more striking parallel between Cihuacoatl and La Llorona is that both are associated with infanticide. In book VIII of the Florentine Codex, in the entry for Don Martin, governor of Hatelulco, Sahagún’s informants reported:

In his time, it came to pass that the demon that in the form of a woman walked and appeared, by day and by night, and was called Cihuacoatl, ate a small boy, who was in his cradle in the town of Azcapotzalco.

A man in Aztec costume facing forward

Cada año en Xochimilco se recuerda la leyenda de La Llorona con una representación en algunos de sus canales. [Each year in the Xochimilco borough of Mexico City, people commemorate the legend of La Llorona with a performance on some of the canals.] Photo by Raúl Arturo Fernández Vega. Shared to Wikimedia Commons with a Creative Commons License.

These similarities between La Llorona and Cihuacoatl have led many scholars to believe that the traditional image of La Llorona (and thus the stories about her that are mostly descriptions) derive from this Aztec belief. Thomas Janvier, writing in 1910, held this belief:

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. […] 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.

Américo Paredes expanded on this observation in 1971, adding other figures of Indigenous myth and folklore that could have contributed facets to the many descriptions of La Llorona:

The literary legend of La Llorona struck deep roots in Mexican tradition because it was grafted on an Indian legend cycle about the supernatural woman who seduces men when they are out alone on the roads or working in the fields. At times she destroys her lovers after giving herself to them, but often she is helpful as well as passionate and may make a man’s fortune or help him raise a fine crop of corn. She is matlacihua or Woman of the Nets among Náhuatl speakers, and other language groups such as the Mixes and the Popolucas knew her by other names. As la segua, she has been reported as far north as Texas, and she is also known as far south as Panamá.

By “literary legend,” Paredes is referring to the stories about La Llorona in the other major category: accounts of the ghost’s human origins. He characterizes them as “literary” because many of the earliest of them arise in literary sources. The earliest such account that I could find comes from a poem by Manuel Carpio published in 1849 and entitled “La Llorona”:

Waist-up portrait of a man in a suit and bow tie.

Manuel Elogio Carpio Hernández (March 1, 1791 – February 11, 1860), known as Manuel Carpio, was a Mexican doctor, poet, and politician who served briefly as the President of the Chamber of Deputies, the equivalent of the U.S. Speaker of the House. He wrote an early poetic retelling of a La Llorona legend. This image was published in his lifetime and is in the public domain. 

PÁLIDO de terror contar oía
Cuando era niño yo, niño inocente,
Que dió la muerte un hombre
En mi pueblo á su esposa Rosalía.

Y desde entonces en la noche umbria
Oye temblando la asustada gente
Tristes quegidos de mujer doliente,
Quegidos como daba en su agonía.

Por algun rato en su lamento cesa,
Mas luego se desata en largo llanto,
Y sola por las calles atraviesa.

A todos llena de mortal espanto,
Y junto al río en la tiniebla espesa
Se va llorando, envuelta con su manto.

My own literal translation follows:

Pale with terror, I heard it told, when I was a child, an innocent child, that a bad man in my town once did to death his wife, Rosalía. And since then in the shadowy night, the trembling, frightened people hear the sad whimpering of a suffering woman, whimpering such as she made in her agony. For a certain time she ceases in her lament, but then she breaks out in prolonged weeping, and alone she traverses the streets. She fills everyone with mortal fear, and close by the river in the thick darkness, she goes weeping, wrapped in her cloak.

Book Cover of A Treasury of Mexican Folkways by Frances Toor.

“Shelfie” of the 1947 book A Treasury of Mexican Folkways by Frances Toor.

In Frances Toor’s 1947 A Treasury of Mexican Folkways, there’s an account of the legend that seems very carefully worded:

In Mexico City itself the legend of La Llorona is still related. She was a pretty but humble maiden named Luisa, with whom a rich young man of high society fell in love. He did not marry her, but according to custom furnished a casita, a love-nest, for her, where they were happy for many years. His friends visited and respected her, and they had three children. Finally his family prevailed upon him to marry a girl of his own class. He told Luisa he was going to marry and she made a scene; he stopped visiting her. She was an uninvited guest at his wedding in the big Cathedral. She came home maddened with grief and sent a dagger into the tender bodies of each of her children, one after the other. Then horror-stricken, she ran wildly through the streets, calling for her little ones, sending terror into the hearts of all who heard her. According to some of the chroniclers Luisa was tried and garrotted for her crime, and on that same day her lover Don Nuño de Montes was buried after having committed suicide.

Note that Toor claims that “the legend is still related” in Mexico city, and then gives a synopsis of the legend, but does not claim that the synopsis derives from any specific contemporary telling. Toor’s version seems instead to have its roots in a literary retelling that appears in the 1880 verse collection Tradiciones y Leyendas Mexicanas by Vicente Riva Palacio and Juan De Dios Peza, which you can see in a pdf download here. Palacio’s version, which contains the names “Luisa” and “Don Nuño de Montes-Claros,” was used by Yda Hillis Addis as the basis for an 1888 prose retelling in English, which she published in The Argonaut newspaper, and which was then widely reprinted; see it in this issue of the Wichita Eagle in Chronicling America. Note that Addis shortened the lord’s name to “Don Nuño de Montes,” and that this is the same name later used by Toor in her English-language version. This strongly suggests that Toor’s source was actually the well known English-language version published 60 years previously by Addis, rather than the oral tradition of Mexico City.

As the scholar Bacil Kirtley pointed out, these literary stories of La Llorona’s origins are not set among Indigenous Mexicans but among Mexico’s Spanish descendants. In Kirtley’s words:

The events of the “La Llorona” story take place in an Europeanized milieu, and the characters’ values, their responses, are thoroughly Spanish, not Indian. Outside of a European social system, with its insistence upon a particular and devious kind of sexual propriety, the story becomes incomprehensible.

Kirtley identifies various European ghosts known as “White Ladies” as possible prototypes for the narratives of La Llorona’s human life. He also points out the legend’s resemblance to the myth of Medea and to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. He acknowledges that characters fitting the popular image of La Llorona existed separately in Mexico prior to contact with Europeans, but considers the narrative elements to be mostly European.

A man holds a guitar

Américo Paredes, one of the great folklorists of the 20th Century, wrote about “La Llorona” in his article in the book American Folk Legend and in his own book Folktales of Mexico. Photo from AFC files.

Paredes agrees with Kirtley that the origin stories were “basically European.” But, as we saw above, he believed they survived because they were grafted onto the deep roots of the Indigenous traditions. Domino Renee Perez differs from this viewpoint, believing the basis of the story to be its deep indigenous roots, but both sides of the debate acknowledge the co-existence of Indigenous and European elements in most versions of the legend.

Kirtley’s identification of “White Lady” stories as a source for many details about La Llorona has convinced many scholars. Still, one problem remained for this theory: stories that closely resembled that of La Llorona turned up in other European countries, but scholars could not find any from Spain. As Stanley Robe pointed out in 1971:

In America [the legend of La Llorona] appears as far north as the Hispanic Southwest of the United States and extends through Mexico and Central America into Colombia and Venezuela, with isolated examples from southern South America. Ordinarily, such a wide geographic distribution would argue strongly for a Hispanic source of the legend, on the assumption that the native groups present in the llorona’s modern habitat display a variety of cultures and traditions and that the uniformity of the legend derives from the other element that has contributed to these mestizo cultures, namely Hispanic tradition.

Published studies on peninsular Spanish folklore say absolutely nothing about the llorona, either by this name or any other. Again it is possible that folklorists have neglected to report the legend, although it is hardly likely that a theme so frequently noted in America would have left no traces in Spain, assuming that its route of transmission led through that country. I have questioned informants in Spain concerning the presence of such a legend but the results have been equally negative.

Although this absence of evidence for a direct Spanish source doesn’t make it impossible that the La Llorona legend was a graft of European ghostlore onto Indigenous deities and folklore characters from Latin America, it did obscure the mechanism by which these two elements came together.

Robe’s specification that La Llorona doesn’t turn up in Spain “either by this name or any other” suggests another question: where did the name “La Llorona” itself come from? The word “llorona” exists in formal Spanish separately from this legend, especially in reference to professional mourners or plañideras. In more common and colloquial speech, it is often used to mean “crybaby.” At some point it must have seemed appropriate to apply it also to a traditional “Weeping Woman” spirit. But was that woman a European ghost or a Mexican deity? In other words, did the name “La Llorona” come to Mexico already associated with hauntings or did it gain those associations in connection to the Indigenous legends?

A man dressed in a catholic priest's vestment sits in an ornate carved chair with a crucifix beside him.

José Maria León y Domínguez, a Jesuit academic from Cadiz, published a story about a weeping female ghost called “La Llorona” in 1866. He presented it as a tale he heard from an old man in the town of Rota, Spain. This photo was published in 1897 and is in the Public Domain.

I’m happy to say I may have uncovered something of a “missing link,” which answers this question while it solves the mystery of whether there were “La Llorona” tales in Spain. It’s a story I haven’t seen mentioned before in the literature on La Llorona. It was published in Spain in 1866 by José Maria León y Domínguez, a Jesuit academic from Cadiz. The central character, a woman named Elvira, ends up as a weeping female ghost called “La Llorona.”

Domínguez’s story, “El Pozo de La Llorona,” includes a frame tale told in the first person, in which the narrator–presumably Domínguez himself–visits the small Andalusian town of Rota, and learns that there is a belief in a frightening apparition called “La Llorona.” La Llorona is invoked by adults and teenagers to frighten younger children. Overhearing this, the narrator questions several adults about who or what “La Llorona” is and gets the story from an old man. The full story (in Spanish) can be read at this link. I’ll try to summarize it here:

In his reign, King Pedro the Cruel kept an eye villages like Rota to see if they were governed well. In those days, there was already a formidable castle there. The castellan in charge of it was a haughty, bloodthirsty, arrogant young man who did not recognize or respect any divine or human law and who overran anyone who opposed his criminal desires. At the time there was also  a fisherman who was a widower and lived alone with his young and beautiful daughter Elvira. Elvira helped her father with the fishing and mending nets, but she also enjoyed festival days, when she would go to the plaza and dance. She was so beautiful that she outshone all the other young women, and so she became prideful. When the mutilated bodies of several village children were found, the castellan was suspected of the crimes, and Elvira’s father warned her to keep clear of him. But she decided that if she made the castellan fall in love with her, she would be elevated above her peers. One day the fisherman saved the castellan’s life, and this led to a meeting between the castellan and Elvira. A week later there were rumors of a courtship, and a week after that Elvira disappeared. Her father searched everywhere, eventually realizing she must have gone to the castle. So he went there himself, and begged the castellan to let his daughter go. From a high window, Elvira told her father she was now the lady of the castle, and sarcastically added that she had traded his poor shack for a rich palace. The father ran away in despair, crying that his daughter was the lady of the castle, and the people believed he was mad. The next morning, the townspeople awoke to find a gallows raised in front of the castle and the castellan hanging from it. People believed that King Pedro had discovered the castellan’s crimes and had him hanged. Elvira became the subject of public ridicule, and could not bear it. In despair, she threw herself in a well and drowned. From that day on, every night at twelve o’clock she rose from the well, wandered through the streets, and entered the castle, crying and moaning all the while. And people said that the punishment that heaven had imposed on Elvira here on earth for her pride was to mourn the death of the castellan, leaving the “Well of la Llorona” every night.

This early version from Spain is intriguing. It is set in the reign of Pedro I, 1350-1369, shortly before the earliest “White Lady” tales discussed by Kirtley. It includes themes present in many Mexican versions of the La Llorona tale, but they are organized differently. Water features prominently in the story, but it comes in the form of the sea and a well, rather than the rivers and lakes more commonly featured in Mexican stories. Infanticide is an important element in the story, but it is not La Llorona who commits the crimes. Elvira may be turning a blind eye to the castellan’s crimes, or she may be in denial. She is certainly guilty of ignoring the rumors of the castellan’s infanticides and wooing him anyway. She is also guilty of excessive pride in her own beauty, which is an element in some Mexican and Mexican-American versions, including that of Camille Acosta which I quoted in my last blog, and that of Joe Hayes, which I’ll post in a future blog.

Book cover of Domino Renee Perez's book There Was a Woman: La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture.

“Shelfie” of my copy of Domino Renee Perez’s book There Was a Woman: La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture.

It’s interesting, too, that this story was written down by a priest, and contains specific ideas about sin and punishment. As Domino Renee Perez points out, “the Spanish…are largely responsible, especially in colonial Mexico, for infusing [the La Llorona story] with Christian ideas concerning divine judgment and damnation.”

Finally, the tale includes the charming frame story, in which the idea of La Llorona is used by parents to get their children to behave. This is another trait common to La Llorona stories, or rather to their deployment, which I’ll discuss at further length in another post.

So we now know that a story containing significant elements of the La Llorona literary legend, including the name “La Llorona,” did indeed exist in Spain, and was used to get children to behave. It seems likely, therefore, that an oral version of this weeping ghost story, something like “El Pozo de La Llorona,” traveled from Spain to Mexico, perhaps reinforced by other versions from Spain, Germany, or elsewhere, sometime before 1850. It’s easy to see how Mexican and other New World audiences would connect this ghostly weeping woman, associated with water and with infanticide, to the deep Indigenous traditions pointed out by Paredes, Janvier, Perez, and others. Once that connection was made, all the ingredients were in place for the modern stories of La Llorona that began to emerge in the mid-nineteenth century.

Whether the story of La Llorona is “basically European,” as Paredes wrote, or basically Indigenous, as Perez suggests, depends partly on what you mean by “the story of La Llorona.” One of the elements that made the journey from Spain was the name “La Llorona,” and that sometimes makes people think the story is predominantly Spanish, since they don’t find stories of “La Llorona” among modern Indigenous people. But as Perez reminds us:

La Llorona’s failure to appear in [the contemporary Nahua storytelling tradition] under her Spanish name is not surprising, for she appears under the names and semblance of her antecedents found in the pantheon of the Mexicas.

So where does this new evidence leave us? The basic contours of the tale’s history remain unchanged, but we have a better idea of the specifics. The current complex of stories about La Llorona has deep roots among indigenous peoples throughout what is now Latin America. At some point after 1529 and before 1859, new elements of the story arrived from Spain, and possibly other parts of Europe such as Germany. These elements, in Paredes’s metaphor, were relatively new branches grafted onto a strong root system.

One interesting outgrowth of this merging of Native and Spanish elements is a strong contemporary tradition equates La Llorona with La Malinche, the Native woman whose language skills were instrumental in Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico. Since La Malinche’s children with Cortés were among the first people to have both Spanish and Native ancestry, they are considered foundational to Mexican identity, yet for her role in the conquest, La Malinche is often considered a traitor. This adds considerable complexity to the La Llorona story for people who equate the two. One of Rudolfo Anaya’s many versions of the tale of La Llorona follows this thread. We’ll be talking about these issues with our Latinx subject specialist Allina Migoni and La Llorona expert Camille Acosta in our October podcast episode, so keep an eye (and ear!) out for that!

Exploring the ways in which these Native roots and European branches interact is not only an interesting exercise. It also has implications for how we interpret the stories. It suggests, for example, that the story may be interpreted as commentary on the very culture contact that created its current form. As Perez points out:

The assimilation of European ideas into the Native worldview, one that includes an understanding of a woman weeping for her children, would allow the Indigenous peoples of Mexico through the figure of La Llorona to account for and even explain the effects of European contact and conquest. Because of the dynamism of the tale, La Llorona and her story can be used to comment on the changing worldview of the Mexicas both pre- and post-conquest.

I’ll be back soon with more about La Llorona. But let’s give Perez the last word about the long history of this fascinating tale:

An accounting of La Llorona’s history helps us to see the weight and endurance of this legend, as well as the various forces that helped shape it. […] La Llorona has been with and a part of Greater Mexican cultural tradition for approximately five hundred years. As testament to the power of a [email protected] storytelling tradition that includes La Llorona, her stories endure into the present.

 

 

One Comment

  1. Jurretta Heckscher
    October 20, 2021 at 1:46 pm

    This series is absolutely fascinating– outstanding material! I first heard of La Llorona from a close relative by marriage whose family has lived in northern New Mexico for many generations, and who has vivid memories of being told about La Llorona as a child. (Evidently if you have a house full of children who don’t want to go to bed, a warning that they risk encountering La Llorona can be quite useful!) I am sharing these entries with him and other family members, and look forward keenly to the next installment. Thank you so much!

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