Careening home on a dark and lonely road, a man pauses. His head is ringing from the drink and debauchery of his hours spent in the cantina. His wife and family wait for him, but he is not ready to return home. He glimpses a woman by the pond, and he creeps through the underbrush for a closer look. The young woman has just finished bathing and is combing her long hair. Silently the man approaches her. They are alone, far from the ears of others. She is easy prey.
Or is she?
Leering with his intentions, he lunges. His hands wrap cruelly around her flesh and he pulls her close. When she turns to fight him off, her hair slides back and reveals not the face of a frightened woman, but a monster. The body that looked so shapely and young moments before is now a ruin. Her breasts hang down to her knees. She is covered in lice. Long dirty nails sprout from her fingertips. But it is her face that makes him shiver. Her face is more horse’s skull than human. White bones show through the maggot-eaten fur of her elongated nose. Glowing red eyes watch him and wide open nostrils propel fetid air into his face. Her large, flat yellow teeth pull back into an unnatural smile and she laughs. It is a sound so unearthly; he freezes in fear.
The tables have turned. He is now the prey! And his soul is devoured.
Hispanic folklore is rich with the story of a woman who alternates between taking on the features of a beguiling enchantress and a horse. Her name is as elusive as her form, but she is often called La Cegua. Some believe her name originated from the Nahuatl word cihuatl, which mean woman. Her name is also spelled Cigua, Chuca, Segua or Tzegua. The La Cegua legend is impossibly jumbled with that of the La Siguanaba myth. She is also a horse-faced monster favored with many names, Sihuanaba, Siguamonta and macihuatli, depending on the country in question.
In all versions of this myth (La Cegua and La Siguanaba), the horse-faced women is a cautionary tale for drunken and depraved men, although some cultures (not many) believe this monster will also prey on children. As with many Latin American myths featuring women, there are heavy elements of morality and sexuality repeated throughout the myth. Also as I showed in my last post on the Wailing Woman, the roles of victim and villain are often blurred. In this myth the woman is sightly more vigilante than a true monster. La Cegua haunts bars, back roads and rubbish heaps, any place men might gather for illicit activities. She prefers to prey on men who are drunkards, or who cheat on their wives, although she will take the soul of any man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Men who wish to avoid contact with La Cegua should never molest a woman they find alone. And they are urged to go home to their family after work, and not spend time gambling and drinking in town.
The horse-faced women always entice their victims with beguiling illusions. Sometimes she meets men in a human form, heavy make-up and dressed in either all white or all black. La Cegua can maintain a human shape as long as she isn’t touched. Other versions say the human shape dissolves when a man looks too closely on her face. In the most common versions she meets men by a water way, washing herself or her clothing. In other versions of the myth, she meets men who are traveling alone on horseback. Sometimes she appears as a magnificent horse. The men chase will horse into a secluded area, planning to capture it. Once alone and far from help, the horse transforms into La Cegua’s monstrous humanoid form and attacks. She has superhuman abilities. She can pass through solid objects, and run or perhaps fly like the wind to chase down her victims and steal their souls.
The men who encounter La Cegua often meet their end by falling to their deaths off a steep cliff. Some become hopelessly lost in the jungle, and are never to be seen again. Others die of fright. If a man escapes La Cegua’s clutches, he will wake days later after fighting a fierce fever. His back will be covered with long gashes from her nails, and he may have been driven insane by the encounter.
Although the myth is a tangle, it’s seems to me it’s about trying to instill Christian values into the native populations. Since woman who fail to guard their virtue are more likely to wind up as these spirits, La Cegua’s and her sister myths are powerful deterrents for both sexes to behave appropriately. As with most Latin American myths, the roots might be from native traditions, but Catholic symbolism is freely interjected. There is the adaptation of the ward. Those wishing to avoid an unpleasant encounter with La Cegua are urged to make the sign of the cross and bite metal the moment they see her. They say the blade of a machete works just fine, but a cross is the preferred metal object for warding off her attacks. Earlier versions of this myth had more naturalistic wards against La Cegua’s evil, like throwing mustard seeds. There is also the inclusion of the horse. The ancestors of this animal can be seen in the American fossil record, but they were extinct pre-European conquest. The horse is almost always a stand-in for European incursion and in Catholic symbolism the horse can represent lust and adultery. The prominent role of water has me puzzled, this would normally relate to baptism. The fact that La Cegua is often found near water could be an indication she is seeking absolution or forgiveness from her sins at the very moment the men approach her.
It’s clear that horse-faced woman is a tale with many missions, it acts as a powerful warning to women of the dangers of men, and as a threat against men would act inappropriately toward women. It’s also a reminder of the power of the Christian faith, for it will triumph over the monsters produced by the older god’s curse.