The Spanish word for witchcraft is brujeria. Throughout Latin America people practice many forms of witchcraft. For the most part, it’s done pretty openly. In Mexico, you can find witches selling their craft right out of their homes or from stalls in the town marketplaces. Seeing a witch for some people is like seeing any other spiritual adviser or health provider. She helps you find love, land a job, or change your luck. You can consult a witch for any social or medical concern you can think of. And in the case of a dark witch, you can ask them to bring harm to your enemies.
Of course this wasn’t always the case, and there are many documented historical accounts of both men and woman being persecuted for witchcraft.
One documented account includes an Afro-Mexican healer by the name of Ana de Vega in 1647. Ana was well-known for her medical skill and used by many of the upper class families. She landed herself in trouble by treating a wealthy Spanish woman named Maria Sambrano. The woman’s condition had already stumped a traditional doctor when Ana stepped in. Ana diagnosed the woman as being under the influence of witchcraft. She also pointed the finger of guilt at the woman’s own daughter-in-law. When the woman’s son, Francisco Sambrano heard about the charges against his wife, he turned the tables on Ana. With his superior social standing, Francisco Sambrano was able to get the Holy Office of the Inquisitor in Mexico City to charge Ana. One of the charges against Ana was curing without a license. She was also accused of employing witchcraft with the intention of dividing the Sambrano family. It took six months to try Ana. She remained in prison during the process and eventually she was convicted of being a witch. She received two hundred lashes, administered in public and was exiled from her village. Ana was not alone, hundreds of people were charged with witchcraft by the Mexico City Inquisitor. Ana was one of the lucky witches. Many Latin American witches faced a much harsher end.
Source: The Human Tradition in Colonial Latin America, Kenneth J. Andrien editor & Christians, Blasphemers, and Witches: Afro-Mexican Ritual Practice, by Joan Cameron Bristol.
A young family walks in the woods. Although the path is clearly marked the trio strays from the packed dirt. They stomp over fresh green shoots as they travel. The mother of the group pulls up wild flowers and shows her child how to crush the soft petals in her tiny fist. They laugh at the destruction they leave behind. The trio follows a bird back to her nest. They overturn a tiny clutch of eggs as they look inside. Picking up the last two unbroken eggs, they manage to smash the fragile shells between their fingers. The mother bird takes to the skies when the father of the group grabs for her legs. She sings a song of misery as she spirals higher and higher into the sky, mourning her lost young and demanding justice. Madremonte hears the young bird’s cry and arises from her bed of leaves to enact swift vengeance on this marauding family.
Americans have a popular outdoor saying: You don’t turn your back on Mother Nature or take her for granted. It equates to, pay attention when you’re in the woods because if you don’t wild weather or the unexpected animal encounter might end your outing in a nasty way.
Although we call nature by this maternal name most of us don’t see nature as a single anthropomorphic being. If we do see nature as a person, it’s often one of the Western myths that comes to mind, like the Greek version of Gaia. However, Latin American cultures have several forms of mother earth goddess. The Aztecs called her Coatlicue, and she wares a dress of live snakes. The Colombian version is called La Madremonte and she is one of my favorites. La Madremonte rules over all of nature, weather, waterways, plants, rocks and animals. She makes it her mission to protect nature from man’s abuses.
La Madremonte is pictured as a large and rather curvy woman. Not a particularly young woman or an attractive one. She has large teeth, (and sometimes fangs) bony hands and instead of skin she’s covered with rich green moss. She wears leaves as her clothing and vines grow from her head in a way that resembles hair. Although she loves animals and is often depicted with them crawling all over her, she’s not a fan of humans. Many people believe that Madremonte gave birth to all waterborne diseases as a way of keeping the human population in check.
Stories of Madremonte often feature the clever ways she eliminates anyone who disrespects nature. As a skillful shape-shifter, she manipulates herself and the landscape any way she wishes. People will wander for hours in her forests and jungles, getting hopelessly lost as she erases trails and rearranges the flow of rivers to confuse them. She can even change the shape of mountains or other landmarks to trap humans in her realm. She keeps them wandering and lost until they die of exhaustion and exposure. A lucky few will simply fall into a deep sleep and be spirited out of her domain. To deal with children Madremonte is more lenient. These she picks ups in her winds and carries to her secret caves located behind waterfalls. She will raise these children as her own, but they will never been seen again.
People still claim to see La Madremonte in wild landscapes and to hear her voice carried on the winds during stormy nights. If you ever encounter Madremonte try not to show any fear and do not run. Just act respectfully and blow tobacco smoke in her direction to keep her calm. Better yet, don’t do anything to make Madremonte take notice of your actions. Always treat nature with kindness.
Hispanic myths are bursting with various blood feasting monsters, but unlike most European vampire myths, which are largely based on Dracula lore, Hispanic blood drinkers take on a huge number of forms. Animal forms are particularly common, like the Chupacabra, who is called Bigfoot’s Latin American cousin. Or the Peuchen, a giant flying snake which uses a hypnotic gaze to paralyze any victim before taking a slurp. Or the Dip, a large black dog, lame in one leg, with a demonic passion for draining his victims dry.
However, there are also countless female monsters with a taste for the red stuff. Here are three to get you started:
Every night La Guajona rises from her underground lair to roam the streets of Spain looking for blood. Clad head to toe in a black cloak, Guajona manages to pass for a harmless old woman. But beneath her robes she hides a hideous form. Her hands and feet resemble that of a bird; they are knobbed and scaly. Straggly black hair conceals her face, which is covered in bright yellow skin, and studded with hairy warts and weeping pustules. A single tooth juts like a slender dagger from the dark pit of her mouth. It is stained the color of ebony, and the tooth reaches well past her pointed chin.
Guajona seeks out homes with young children as they are her preferred victims. When she finds a sleeping innocent, she drives her single tooth deep into the sleeping child’s frail little veins and feasts on their blood. Although Guajona is not reported to kill the children, she will leave them so bloodless that when they wake in the morning they are discolored to an unearthly white and weakened past exhaustion.
This Caribbean shape-shifter also goes about by day as an old woman, but by night she sloughs off her wrinkled and saggy old skin. Once free of her human-looking costume, she assumes her rightful form, that of a blinding white fireball. Taking flight, she darts across the night sky looking for blood. The Soucouyant can gain entry into homes by cracks too small for other villains to enter. Even a keyhole is sufficient for her to slide inside.
By unknown means she extracts blood from her sleeping victims, leaving blue-black bruises on any soft parts of their arms or legs as proof of her nocturnal visit. Although Soucouyant usually leaves her victims alive, taking too much blood will kill them and transform them into another Soucouyant.
Exposing a Soucouyant is popular ritual because her skin is highly prized by people who practice black magic. Also, those wishing to kill a Soucouyant must grind her abandoned skin to a powder and then mix it with rock salt. If you can destroy her skin before daybreak’s first light, Soucouyant with not be able to take her daytime form and will dissipate forever into the sunshine.
A Colombian shape-shifter who often appears to wood cutters or other lone travelers near the jungle or forest where she makes her home. Tunda can make herself appear very beautiful, but with one telling flaw. She always appears with a wooden leg. The leg resembles that of a kitchen utensil called a molinillo. Far from being the comical creature she sounds, Tunda is cunning.
She will distract her intended prey by assuming the appearance of someone they love, a wife, or child. When stalking children, the Tunda always appears as their mothers. Once she has them enthralled, she will feed them shrimps to entice them to follow her deep into the jungle. Once she lures them far from help, she turns on them and sucks them bloodless. But Tunda will not stop there: she also devours her victim’s whole body in a feeding frenzy reminiscent of a wild animal.
Although there are commonalities between these women, they are all quite unique monsters and each one is a worthy addition to vampire lore.
The holiday season triggers lots of emotions. Some of these feelings are honest to goodness compassion, and love of our fellow man. Some of these feeling are guilty baggage, we feel emotionally blackmailed into doing things we don’t want to do for the sake of other people’s feelings.
In the case of small children, this emotional blackmail comes with the highest stakes of all, the prospect of an abundant and glittery array of presents from old Saint Nick.
Elf on the Shelf is already monitoring many American households, and he’s ever vigilant for catching juvenile indiscretions. (In case you didn’t know, Elf on the Shelf is a small stuffed toy that parents hide in a child’s room. Then they trick the child into thinking North Pole Intelligence is watching them every waking moment. In some homes he’s even filled with a nanny cam, so parents can have proof of juvenile offenses before handing out those pricey toys.)
From literature like A Christmas Carol, to songs like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the message we send kids during the holidays is clear: put a smile on your face, even if you don’t feel happy. Be kind to others, even if they’re mean to you. And do it for the whole month of December, because the naughty list awaits those who fail to achieve niceness at any cost!
Most cultures have some form of mythical creature that seems to have one purpose: scare kids into listening to their parents! During the holidays with threats of lumps of coal, or gifts aplenty on the line, behaving takes on greater significance.
In Hispanic households kids are looking over their shoulders and under their beds for Cucuy and Cuca. These are Latin American versions of the bogeyman, and bogeywoman, respectively. It is this creature who watches our young. They hide in the shadows, in closets and on rooftops, waiting for signs of a child’s bad behavior. When the child acts up, Cuca is there to grab the offending child and spirit them away forever. Or in some cases they just eat them.
Either way, Cuca is bad news!
Most scholars believe this myth originated in Portugal as a pumpkin headed ghost. That makes this monster technically Lusophone in origin, a cultural distinction that might not matter to most of you, but I felt I should mention it. Pumpkin heads are common monsters in much of Europe, and people in North American should be aware of them from widespread popularity of the Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hallow.
As in the case of most myths, this story spread across Latin America through colonization, and is now found in every country. However, each version of the myth is slightly different, with changes to name, El Cucuy being one of the most common. To the physical attributes, some have bat ears and tails. To the methods of inflicting harm on children, some versions hall them away while sleeping, others rip them from a mother arms.
The most common country to feature the female version is Brazil. Although most countries include the grammatical structures to designate this monster in either gender, something you don’t see much of in the Anglicized versions of the boogeyman or pumpkin head myths.
In Brazilian lore, the Cuca is sometimes depicted as a human-alligator monster, or as dragon. In most of the other visions of the myth the monster lacks a face or a clear shape, perhaps in part because this monster is shapeshifter. It not uncommon to see Cuco described as shadows without substance, only taking on a form after a child makes a mistake. Then they take on an appearance too horrible to describe, and with a mouth full of sharp teeth.
Some cultures view this monster as the dark counterpart of the guardian angel myth, and believe the only way to drive them away is with prayers.
In many cases, this monster finds a path into a child’s heart at an early age through lullabies. Like this one:
Vai-te Cuca. Vai-te Cuca
Para cima do telhado
Deixa o menino dormir
Um soninho descansado”
Leave Cuca. Leave Cuca
Go to the top of the roof
let the child have
A quiet sleep
Or this one, sung to the tune of Rock-a-bye baby:
Que viene el cuco
Y te llevará.
Que viene el cuco
Y te comerá.
Sleep my baby,
Sleep, baby, do!
The bogeyman’s coming
And he will take you.
Sleep my baby,
Sleep, baby, do!
The bogeyman’s coming
And he will eat you.
Although this version of the bogey-person is not as well-known as others, it’s a staple of life in most Hispanic families. Now with Christmas mear weeks away, I’m sure many rambunctious kids are watching their manners, eating their vegetables and doing their homework.