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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

The Many Legends of
La Llorona

by C. F. Eckhardt
Author's Note: To set the La Llorona story straight once & for all. I've been digging into La Llorona for nearly forty years. This article pretty much sums up what I've found. - CFE

La Llorona. The Spanish verb llorar means ‘to weep,’ the suffix on means great, large, or copious, and the suffix a indicates feminine gender. La Llorona, then, can be translated ‘she who weeps copiously.’ That’s exactly what she does.

Why does she weep? Especially, why does she weep always by a waterside? Or rather, almost always by a waterside, for the Austin version of la Llorona appears not at a creekbank but on deep East 6th Street. In Phoenix, Arizona she appears in girls’ restrooms in elementary schools. Who is this la Llorona, anyway?

There are many versions of the story, but the two most popular are these: -

A young, very beautiful, but also very poor girl is seduced by a wealthy young man. When she becomes pregnant he abandons her. When the child is born she discards it by throwing it into a watercourse. Shortly afterward she dies. When she appears at the Gates, St. Peter tells her that, because she lived a blameless life save for her one indiscretion, she will be allowed to enter Heaven—but only if she brings with her the soul of her child. She is condemned, therefore, to wander watersides, calling “¡Mi niño! ¡Mi niño!” in search of the soul of the child she cast away until she finds it.

In the second fairly common version, the young woman is married and the mother of identical twin boys. She takes them to the church to have them baptized. As the boys are being baptized by the priest, a company of soldiers marches past. One of the children keeps his eyes on the priest, while the other turns his head to watch the soldiers. The mother takes this as an omen— one of her sons is destined to be a priest, the other a soldier. In Spanish Mexico, to the common people soldiers were a symbol of oppression, not of benevolence. As she cannot, later, remember which of the boys turned to look at the soldiers, she drowns both—with the same result as the former story, save that she cries “¡Mis niños! ¡Mis niños!”

These, however, are not the only la Llorona stories. In Austin, a young man is walking along East 6th Street when he sees what is apparently a very attractive young prostitute, always dressed in the latest fashion of prostitutes—and always in bright red—leaning against a building or a post, sobbing her heart out. He approaches her and asks her what is wrong. She doesn’t reply, but turns toward him. Instead of the beautiful face he expects, her face is that of a donkey—and the jaws are open. The open jaws lunge for his throat. The ‘donkey woman’ is a common Hispanic folk-tale. Only in Austin, however, is she known as la Llorona.

Professor John Igo, in San Antonio, believes he has the original source of la Llorona—an Aztec water goddess who wept by the waterside to draw young men to her. She would then seize the man and leap into the water with him, drowning him in the process. Actually, she was a very useful goddess. Any Aztec who reached the age of 60 could drink himself or herself into oblivion with no consequences other than a hangover the next morning. However, if a man—or a woman-- under 60 got drunk, that person was executed. So was his/her whole family. Therefore when Papa got a snootful and fell into the creek and drowned, it was very wise to say “I guess the water goddess got him. We heard her crying last night.”

The Aztec water goddess may be one source of la Llorona stories, but it certainly is not the only source. Were it the only source, la Llorona would be purely a Western Hemisphere story. It isn’t. Weeping women by the waterside also appear in Spain, France, Ireland, Scotland—and Greece.

Much of the west coast of Europe holds people of Celtic stock. The Celts have their own weeper-by-the-waterside. She is called be’an sighe, which has been Anglicized to ‘banshee.’ The banshee is an omen of death. In her earliest form she appears as a small woman dressed entirely in green, who is washing winding sheets (the old name for a shroud) in a watercourse, weeping as she does so. When she is asked who has died and needs winding sheets, she either says “You!” or gives the name of someone very much alive. That person dies in the next few days. In a later form, a banshee attaches herself to a family and appears to wail when death for a member of the family is approaching. She may appear as a dark shadow, or as a beautiful woman dressed in white, with long, flowing, usually red hair.

Many pagan legends and myths were given Christian overlays after Christianity took Europe. Nearly every Christian celebration was overlaid atop a pagan holiday, the most notable of which is Christmas itself. The Roman Saturnalia took place just after the winter solstice, as did the birth of the pagan deity Mithras—a religion with a lot of similarity to Christian practices, including baptism. The followers of Mithras were baptized in the still-warm blood of a sacrificial bull, leading to the New Testament admonition “Keep yourself free of (or clean of) blood.” It was not unknown, in Biblical times, to ‘hedge one’s bets’ by attempting to follow several religions at once, but Christians were forbidden to follow any religion but Christianity.

Yet is la Llorona the banshee with a Christian overlay to keep the Inquisition at bay? There is a far older ‘weeper-by-the-waterside,’ and she comes from Greece. According to Greek folklore, the woman who weeps by the waterside is none other than Medea herself, weeping for the children she bore to Jason, then slaughtered, cooked, and served to Jason and his crew as a grisly stew. There were Greek colonies on the west coast of Spain before Rome even existed. Could the banshee have grown out of the Greek story about Medea, changed to fit the landscape?

In Phoenix, Arizona—and so far as is known in Phoenix alone—la Llorona has taken on yet another face. In the old ‘girls’ restroom’ story of Bloody Mary or Mary Wales, if a girl turns out the lights in the room, stands before a mirror, and repeats either “Bloody Mary, bloody Mary, you killed your children” or “Mary Wales, Mary Wales, you killed your children” nine times, the horrid, blood-covered face of Bloody Mary/Mary Wales will appear in the mirror as if looking over the girl’s shoulder. In Phoenix, Hispanic girls repeat “La Llorona, la Llorona, tu matan tus niños.”

So where did la Llorona actually originate, and which story is the oldest? There’s a fine, old, and very useful phrase in Spanish that covers the only reasonable answer—“¿Quien sabe?”

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" August 12, 2008 column

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