5 fascinating characters from Guatemalan folklore

Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemalan folklore

Guatemala is a country with a rich heritage. The diversity of people who live here, the beauty of our surroundings and the historical plight of our heritage all come together in folklore.

With ancient and modern mixed in, our folktales and legends offer an alternative history to Guatemala. Informed by the many different cultures that make up our population, the myths, legends and folk tales are fascinating glimpses into past worlds and present beliefs.

5 of the most fascinating figures from Guatemalan folklore

Folk tales from any country add to its identity, with an insight into the ordinary people who lived and worked throughout the wars and conquests in the history books.

  1. The Quetzal

Guatemala’s national bird, the Quetzal is vibrantly coloured and stunningly beautiful. Green and rich red make its plumage stand out against the lush backdrop of the countryside. Visitors to the country will find it everywhere, from bank notes to statues and Mayan carvings.

The Quetzal represents freedom in the traditional stories of Mayan culture, and they are also a spirit guide (‘nahual’) for the Maya people. There are five species of the Quetzal, and it’s only found in parts of Central America and Mexico. And even then, only in remote forest land in the mountains, including the Highlands of Guatemala.

Folklore says that the Quetzal played a major part in defencing ancient Maya against the Conquistadors. Legend has it that a Quetzal attacked the Spanish leader Don Pedro de Alvarado while he was attacking Mayan leader Tecun Uman. The legendary Maya leader was killed in the battle, leaving a blood stain on the breast of the bird. And while Spain won, the Quetzal remained a symbol of rebellion and defiance.

  1. El Sombrerón

A more sinister figure from Guatemalan folklore, El Sombrerón can be seen at dusk. You’ll see a man wearing a black hat with an over-sized brim. He will offer to play you a song on his guitar… but beware, because he brings with him a cautionary tale.

He’s actually one of the most famous characters in folk stories from Guatemala, and the story goes like this. One day a young girl met El Sombrerón and he played his guitar for her. But before he could finish his tune, she was called back home to her parents. From that day on, she saw him everywhere, heard his songs in her dreams and when she tried to eat, her food turned to dirt. The moral of the story, pof course, is not to allow young girls to stray too far from home. So popular is the story of El Sombrerón, a film was made about the story in 1950.

  1. The alux

Similar to the Irish leprechaun, the alux also has much in common with the ‘golem’ of Jewish folklore. It is a spirit in the mythological tradition of some Maya people from Guatemala and the Yucatan. He’s also called Chanekeh by the Nahuatl people.

Alux’ob are about knee-high and are dressed in Maya clothes, and while they’re mostly invisible they can become physical so that they can communite witj people. They’re linked with fields, stones, caves and forests. Some Maya people believe that that the Alux’ob are formed when a farmer builds a smallholding, usually in a field of maize.

For seven years, the Alux’ob will protect the crops and ensure that there is enough rain. After the seven years, the farmer must seal the little alux inside his home, which becomes a shrine. Otherwise, he will run riot and play tricks on people. If a farmer is asked for an offering by an alux and doesn’t give one, then they will cause problems and spread illness. But if they are treated well, they are helpful and kind.

  1. La Siguanaba

A figure from Central American folklore and known as La Siguanaba in Guatemala, this shapeshifter warns men against infidelity. Seen as a beautiful woman with long hair from behind, the spirit lures men into danger. And then she reveals that her face is that of a horse. If the man doesn’t die of terror, he will be driven insane.

Its likely that she was brought to Guatemala and other Central American countries by Spain during colonialism and used by the colonists to control the indigenous population.

  1. La Llorona

La Llorona, or the ‘weeping woman’ is a key figure from 16th century Latin American folklore. While she is not only found in Guatemala, her legend is well known here too. The story follows a poor country woman who drowns her children in a fit of grief and despair. She is condemned to haunt the land, weeping for her lost children. If you meet her, you will be touched by despair and sadness.

In 2019, the massive Conjuring horror movie franchise produced a high budget version called The Curse of La Llorona. It was not met with critical acclaim and shouldn’t be muddled with the indie film La Llorona made by Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante. It’s generating Oscar buzz for its impressive weaving of La Llorona legend with a broader tale of the long, tragic legacy of genocide.