Don't go down the river, child,
Don't go there alone;
For the sobbing woman, wet and wild,
Might claim you for her own.
She keens when the sun is murky red;
She wails when the moon is old;
She cries for her babies, still and dead,
Who drowned in the water cold.
― An old Hispanic folk song
Legends and myths, many of them carried forward by oral tradition, form inevitable aspects of cultures all across the world. A majority of them are known to be centuries old, and it is quite obvious that, over the years, many of these legends have had several different versions; nevertheless, the crux always remains the same. More often than not, these legends revolve around fearful characters―monsters, spirits, ghosts, etc.―which are symbolic of some or the other aspect of life, and/or are meant to serve a particular purpose. In a certain way, the fictional characters in these legends tend to become synonymous with certain aspects of life, which is why, despite being centuries old and having varied forms, they continue to remain popular amongst people, especially children.
Mexico, the country which keeps on attracting people towards it owing to its different colors and moods, also boasts of numerous myths and legends, which have been brought down through generations. One such age-old legend is that of La Llorona
, the weeping woman, which is believed to have originated in Mexico City, the country's capital, but today, is popular not only in Mexico, but also in large parts of North and South America.
The Legend of La Llorona
Much like several other legends, there are numerous variations of the tale of La Llorona as well. However, as mentioned above, the crux remains unchanged. Here's what the legends says:
"Many years ago, there lived a beautiful girl named Maria
in a little village of Mexico. Apparently, she was the most beautiful girl in her village and all the surrounding villages, owing to which, she was very proud of her beauty. She would not even glance at any of the youths in the village as she believed nobody was good enough for her. In fact, she dreamed of marrying the most handsome man in the world.
One fine day, a handsome and dashing, young rancher rode into her village on horseback. When Maria saw him, she instantly fell in love―it was love at first sight―and decided that if she would marry someone, it would be that rancher. The young rancher also liked her when he saw her; but whenever he approached her or attempted to speak to her, Maria would turn her head away and leave quietly. One day, in order to impress her, the rancher went to her house to entertain her and her family, by playing his guitar and singing for them. While everyone else in the family was all praises about his skills, Maria didn't even peep out of her room. Moreover, she also refused to accept all the expensive gifts that he had got for her. All these were, in fact, Maria's tricks of seeming different than other girls, and it did indeed work. The rich rancher had never ever come across a difficult girl like Maria, something that attracted him even more towards her. He swore by all his heart that he will marry only Maria and no one else.
So, finally the rancher asked for Maria's hand in marriage, and the girl was super happy as everything had turned out the way she had wanted. Her tricks had shown their magic. Very soon, their engagement was announced, and it was not long after that, they were finally married. In the beginning, everything was nice and fine in Maria's married life. Both were very happy together, and soon, they became proud parents of two, very cute children.
Some time after the kids were born, Maria's husband's attitude towards her began to change. He started staying out of the house and away from his family for days together, and whenever he visited them for a short while, he would only spend time with his children, and not with his wife. Owing to the rancher's growing indifference towards Maria, she was immensely disturbed and sad, and she would let all her frustration out on her kids, on whom her husband showered all his love. Days passed by, and the last time her husband visited home, he told her that he was in love with someone else and that he wanted to abandon Maria, and marry the other woman. On hearing this, Maria completely broke down as she was devastated. She just couldn't understand what she could do to save her world from falling apart. Leaving her alone in agony and grief, her husband went away, this time she thought, forever.
Maria drowning her children
But he did return to his village. That evening, Maria was strolling along the river bank with her children, and she saw her husband coming towards her in a carriage. But he was not alone, rather he was accompanied by a beautiful lady, seated elegantly by his side. Maria understood that she was the same lady her husband was talking about when he had last visited home, and instantly knew that her husband had taken her as his wife. The rancher stopped his carriage on seeing his children, got down, and met them with love and affection. However, he didn't even look at Maria who was standing just beside them. When he stepped onto the carriage and went off, completely ignoring Maria, she was extremely offended and annoyed. At that moment, she also felt very jealous of her children, who got all the love of the rancher. Thus, terribly enraged, she caught hold of her children and threw them into the river.
Seeing her children drowning, Maria suddenly realized the terrible mistake that she had committed, and immediately ran down the river bank, in order to save them but in vain. Before she could reach the kids, they disappeared into the depths of the river, and Maria could do nothing but curse herself for her sin. But she knew that she could not continue living with the terrible burden of her kids' death on her shoulders. So, she committed suicide by jumping into the river. The next morning, a traveler saw the corpse of a beautiful woman along the river bank, and immediately informed the villagers, who instantly recognized her. Maria's corpse was then buried at the very place, where it was found.
However, everything was not over yet. On the very first night, people passing by her grave heard a voice of a woman crying out of agony and sorrow. The villagers recognized Maria's voice as she asked (from her grave) where her children were. The very next moment, she was seen walking across a river bank, dressed in the same white robe/gown in which she was buried. From then on, on many dark, moonless nights, people could hear her laments as she roamed across the village in search of her children. Since that night, because her spirit kept continuously weeping and sobbing for her children, she was no longer referred to as Maria, but as La Llorona
, the weeping woman."
There is another version of the tale which tells us that when Maria drowned herself and died and her soul reached the gates of Heaven, she was not permitted to enter because of her sin. She was told that she could only enter the afterlife if she got the lost souls of her children along. Otherwise, her soul would be trapped in between Heaven and the Earth. Owing to this, La Llorona was forced to return to Earth and look out for her children, whom she would never be able find. Thus, her spirit would never be free of the sins she had committed when she was alive, and would continue to roam the Earth for eternity. Some versions also mention that in her quest for the kids, La Llorona often abducts small children strolling/playing alone at late evening/night, and drowns them as well. In another popular version, La Llorona gave birth to her lover's children before marriage, and drowned them to death, when her lover refused to accept her with the children. Moreover, there are several other versions that inform us that the entire episode took place in present-day Mexico City. It is worth noting that although varied versions of the tale abound, there are a couple of aspects, common to each one of them. For instance, La Llorona dressed in a white garment, and her constant weeping as she wanders near water or in deserted alleys are common in each of the versions.
Ethnographers and historians who have studied the legend of La Llorona, conclude that the character indeed bears resemblance to certain other, albeit older, folkloric characters.
In one of the Aztec legends, the goddess Cihuacoatl
abandons her only son at the crossroads, from where the child gets lost. According to the tale, she returns to the place every night and weeps for her child, but only to find a sacrificial knife every time.
A similar character also appears in another Aztec legend that is related to the Nahua woman La Malinche
. Though there are no clear references as to whether or not she killed her children, the lore tells us that she was abandoned by her Spanish lover after she bore his child, which in turn, led her to commit several acts of vengeance.
Furthermore, La Llorona also in a way resembles the character of Lamia
, the Libyan queen in ancient Greek mythology. Legend (one of the popular versions) holds that Lamia and Zeus were in love, and the latter fathered several of the former's children. Hera, Zeus' jealous wife, cursed Lamia and made her eat all her children. Owing to the sorrow, Lamia was transformed into a terrible child-eating daemon, who ate up all the children she saw.
The legends mentioned above have some really striking similarities with the La Llorona story. This is one of the most interesting aspects of oral traditions; their movement is not only vertical, in the downward direction (down the generations), but it is also horizontal, across lands. And when they travel by word of mouth across lands, more often than not, they tend to assimilate into the local folkloric traditions. Thus, many of them have similar characters with different names, similar instances in different backdrops, and so on.
La Llorona emerging out of water
The legend of La Llorona is a very unique tale in many ways. It has been studied over the years by numerous folklorists and scholars, who have presented us with a wide array of interpretations regarding the legend and La Llorona herself.
One of the most common interpretation likens the purpose of the La Llorona story to that of the Bogeyman
. Parents often tell their children about the monster known as the Bogeyman
, who may be hiding somewhere in their rooms (in the closet, under the bed, and so on) and will appear the moment they misbehave and/or do not listen to the elders. Some scholars opine that the La Llorona story also serves the same purpose. It is used by parents to warn children that the weeping woman may take them away if they misbehaved and/or went out of the house alone after dark.
Several people have also concluded that the legend is meant to warn young women against getting carried away by the wealth and good looks of men who make lavish promises about love and life, as such hasty decisions may lead to unfavorable, undesired results.
Ana Maria Carbonell, a feminist writer, attempted to study La Llorona against the backdrop of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and came up with some really interesting conclusions. According to her, the weeping woman can be interpreted in two ways.
- On a positive note, she represents a form of female resistance against the patriarchal outlook. In this case, she represents the pagan, Indian population of Mexico as against the polished, Christian Spaniards, who colonized the land and imposed their laws on the people.
- On a negative note, her portrayal as a destructive figure who commits a horrible sin for which she is punished for eternity, reminds us of the Christian models of repentance, suggesting that sinful actions may lead to horrible results.
Some others have opined that the episode of Maria killing her own children may be a reaction to the attitude of the patriarchs (colonists in this case) to control the behavior of women (indigenous population) at all times. Therefore, as one of the local folklores of Mexico, the tale of La Llorona will always continue to hold ground, especially in the wake of their patriotic sensibilities.
One of the famous figures, even in several media of the world's popular culture, La Llorona continues to intrigue us. As the legend will spread through word of mouth in the years to come, newer versions will continue to evolve, and she may come to represent new aspects of life each time as societies will go on changing. Some people claim to have even seen her; however, in the absence of evidence, such claims have always been dismissed as false. But the point is that La Llorona will always remain in our minds in some form or the other.