Spirits of the Season: La Llorona

For generations, children throughout Mexico and the American southwest have whispered the same woman’s tragic story into one another’s ears, provoking nervous giggles while planting the seeds of nightmares.  She’s called la Llorona, the Weeping Woman or the Woman in White.  Almost every re-telling of her popular tale contains its own variations, but the basic elements are usually these: a poor but proud young mother, her disloyal lover, and their children, murdered by drowning in a flash of jealous rage but mourned for an eternity thereafter.

Photo by Tamara Traver

Maria’s beauty was the envy of her entire town.  So much so that she became certain her charms were destined to win her a husband of wealth and status, one who could raise her up out of the poverty to which she’d been born.  The man she set her sights on was the son of a local landowner, a handsome young bachelor whose attentions were sought after by girls from all the best families in the area— girls far more privileged than Maria.  She was right about the magnetic power of her beauty, however, and soon enough she married the target of her desire, despite the objections of his family and the resentment that their violation of class boundaries aroused in the community at large.

Maria bore her new husband children right away, hoping that his love for them would be enough to ensure his loyalty.  Maria had already noticed that the town’s scorn was reserved only for her, and did not extend to her well-regarded spouse.  Before long he was spending evenings away from home in the company of his old friends, and then entire nights.  Maria could only suspect that he was seeing other women, and in time might abandon her for someone better suited to his station in life. 

One day as she was walking along the river with her little ones, Maria spotted her husband’s best carriage clattering down the road toward her.  Beside him on the seat was another woman, one who’d been Maria’s rival for his hand before their marriage.  She was heartbroken when he rode on by her with his new mistress at his side, never sparing Maria, his wife, so much as an acknowledging glance.  The despair in her heart curdled to rage in that instant, and before Maria knew what she was doing she’d thrown her small children into the river, blaming them and burden they represented for her loss of their father’s affection.  The swift current caught them and pulled them under the water’s surface, out of sight.

The horror of what she’d done struck Maria immediately and she began to scream, but it was too late.  The current was fast; her babies were drowned and gone.  When her husband learned of what she’d done he disavowed her once and for all.  For a time after that she subsisted on the edges of the town, wandering the riverbanks and crying out for her lost children.  Eventually she threw herself into the river to join them, but by then not even death could end her torment.  Her wasted body was recovered and buried in the local cemetery, but people continued to hear her in the night and occasionally they would see her as well: a white-shrouded wraith at the water’s edge, grieving for lost children she would never find.  It came to be said that hearing her piteous wails was a harbinger of impending death, and that if she caught children out alone at night she might drag them down into the river with her, mistaking them for her own.

Photo by Richie Diesterheft, used under a Creative Commons License

The story of la Llorona lives on into the modern world, most commonly as a cautionary tale, one used to frighten children away from such risky behavior as playing unsupervised near bodies of water.  People who grow up with the legend of the Woman in White often believe it to be rooted in local history, though in truth the tale’s influence is widespread and its details are adaptable based on the needs of the teller.  For example, in desert regions the Weeping Woman is sometimes seen abroad at noon, during the worst heat of the day, when it would be dangerous for children to play outdoors in the baking sun.  An interesting contemporary twist even enjoins the children of undocumented immigrants to avoid the notice of United States authorities, because being sent back home would leave them open to the predations of la Llorona, who invariably haunts the towns they came from.

The core of the narrative is also mutable.  In some versions a widowed Maria drowns the children of her first husband in order to make herself available for a new man, who shuns her after her crime comes to light.  In others it’s the husband himself who kills the children he doesn’t want to raise, driving Maria mad with grief.  In these ways the story serves as an injunction for young women against believing the lies of selfish men.

While many accounts date the tale to the late 18th century, historical precedents suggest that its origins might be traced back even further.  Folklore claims that the Aztec fertility goddess Cihuacoatl appeared in the city of Tenochtitlan in the early 1500s, wailing over the coming destruction of her children.  The Llorona myth also has parallels with the life of la Malinche, a native woman who served conquistador Hernán Cortés as an interpreter later in the same century.  Sometimes viewed as a traitor to her people, la Malinche (also called Doña Marina) had a son with Cortés, only to be abandoned when he returned to Spain several years before his death in 1547.

Themes similar to those embodied in the Llorona story can be found in the Greek myth of Medea, who murdered her children after being scorned by their father Jason, and she shares some attributes with the Irish Bean-sídhe, or Banshee, a fairy spirit that keens in the night when someone is about to die.  In her role as a malevolent ghost who might capture unwary children she compares with the urban legend of Bloody Mary: the infamous mirror-dwelling witch who receives an unusual number of invites to suburban kids’ slumber parties every year.  In popular culture the Weeping Woman has provided inspiration for numerous films, books, poems, and songs.  This fall she’s even an attraction at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, with a maze based on her story and titled “La Llorona: Villa De Almas Pedidas” (Village of the Lost Souls).  You can learn more about it on  CreepyLA’s dedicated Halloween Horror Nights Page, and of course she haunts the internet in many other places too.

So the next time you hear screams in the night… well, you might want to call the police about that.  But remember la Llorona this Halloween season, and watch out if you live near water!

Photo by Tamara Traver