Jürg Widmer Probst reviews the fascinating characters from Guatemalan folklore

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In Guatemala, we are proud of our legends and folktales. They are rich and varied, and informed by the many different cultures that make up our population. 

They are also the stories and characters that add to the rich identity of our country. Beyond the written history of wars and conquests, our oral folktales tell the story of ordinary people and the world around them. 

So, here are just a few of the most fascinating characters from Guatemalan folklore. 

The Quetzal

This beautiful creature is the national bird of Guatemala. When you visit our country, you will see it everywhere – from bank notes to statues and Mayan carvings. It is stunningly beautiful, with rich green feathers and a bright red breast. 

But what does this real-life bird have to do with folklore and legend? Well, it all comes down to the origin of that striking red breast. The story goes that the Quetzal played a crucial role in the defence of the ancient Mayan kingdoms. When the conquistadors arrived, the Quetzal attacked their leader, Don Pedro de Alvarado. 

He was battling the great Mayan Tecun Uman. And while Tecan Uman was killed in the fight, the Quetzal still bears the stain of his blood on its chest. The Spanish conquered the Mayans, but the Quetzal is an important symbol of defiance. And in one final twist, the bird refuses to sing until the Mayan empire is restored and the nation is free again. 

El Sombrerón

You happen to be out around dusk, and you spot a man wearing an over-sized black brim hat. He offers to play you a tune on his guitar. Beware: it could be El Sombrerón, one of the most famous characters in our folklore. 

The story goes that this mysterious character once met a beautiful young girl. He played her a song on his guitar, but then she was called back into her house by her parents. 

From that moment on, she saw El Sombrerón everywhere and heard his songs in her dreams. Every time she tried to eat, her food was full of soil. 

This cautionary tale is still commonly heard today, especially when parents want to keep their daughters from wandering too far from home. The story was even adapted into a film in 1950.

The Alux

A curious creature, the Alux might be familiar to the Irish. It bears certain similarities to their ‘leprechaun’, but also to the Jewish ‘golem’. The story goes that farmers create the Alux out of clay as a way of protecting their land. 

The farmer makes a figure out of clay and then gives it offerings until the figurine disappears. Once it does, the Alux lives on in spirit form, protecting the farm. 

It has a small home, which must be sealed up after a certain point to stop the Alux causing trouble. Like the leprechaun, the Alux is both a force for good and for mischief. The Alux is still respected among our Mayan communities, and is seen as an important protective spirit.

The Sihuanaba

Another character from folklore that acts as a warning against infidelity. This time it is a shape-shifting woman who appears on dark nights to tempt the unwary. Her face is a skull, but she doesn’t show her face to her victim until it is too late. 

The horror of this faceless spirit is too much for the men who see her. She lures them to a secret place and then paralyses them with terror when she reveals her true identity. Finally, she steals their soul and they are lost to the world of the living for ever more.

La Llorona

The Weeping Woman or La Llorona is a key character in a traditional Guatemalan tale. A poor country woman is left to raise her family alone, and she drowns herself and her family in grief. It is a tragic story that in many ways reflects the hardships of the lives of many ordinary Guatemalans in the past.

Ever since her death, the woman’s spirit haunts the land, crying as she searches for her lost children. She brings sadness and bad luck to anyone who meets her. And it is said that if you hear La Llorona’s third cry, there is no escape!

To read more of Jürg Widmer Probst’s insights into the cultural life of Guatemala, check out his blog, here.