The Black Hat of Guatemala: El Sombrerón

One of the most interesting things about monster stories is what they can teach you about life.* The legend of el Sombrerón is no exception. This Guatemalan boogeyman appears in tales spanning much of the country’s history, and remains important even now. Though he used to appear more frequently, these days he comes chiefly on nights with a full moon, such as the night that I’m posting this. Look out your window, dear reader, and then shut it tight.

Though he might announce his presence with dark, baying dogs or the jingling of spurs on his black boots, el Sombrerón can also appear without warning from out of a shadow. Some say he’s preceded by a swift, cold breeze. His most distinctive features are his eponymous hat–so wide that it obscures his face–and his short stature. Like many monsters, he dresses all in black, and speaks to no one. Invisible, he upsets cups, knocks over candles, and sends horses galloping through the streets. He braids horses’ and dogs’ hair so delicately that the patterns have to be left forever or cut out. Beneath the white light of the moon, he roams from town to town, accompanied by his mules, dogs, and a cart full of coal.

Does he sound like more like an average poltergeist than a serious problem? For some families, he is. Others, however, will be unlucky enough to find his mules hitched outside of their home. These are the families with long-haired, beautiful daughters. This is where trouble really begins.

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Thanks to Jorge Jaramillo over at Flickr for  this origami representation.

El Sombrerón has a thing for this type of woman, and, as night falls, will pull out his silver** guitar, walk up under her window, and begin to sing in a voice only she can hear. Woe betide she who responds to his charms. The legends vary on what exactly seals her fate–whether it’s hearing his song, looking at him, or letting him braid her hair–but once she engages with him, she’s pretty much screwed. The woman becomes completely enamoured of Sombrerón, and her torture begins.

His braids won’t come out. Bits of dirt and rock appear in her food, discouraging the already heartsick women from eating at all. She won’t sleep, and she won’t think of anything but him. As el Sombrerón visits her less, she wants him more, and any efforts to remove her from his presence will only hasten her descent into madness. Finally, the woman will die of a broken heart, and el Sombrerón will abduct her soul to stay with him forever. In some versions of the legend, he seems upset that he killed his beloved, and will visit on occasion to cry at her grave. Other times, he simply moves on to the next house.

I’ve only found one tale in which the woman escapes this devil’s lust entirely. The story is repeated often: el Sombrerón once targeted young Susana in la Recolección, a cobblestone mission in the mountains of Guatemala. Alarmed at her declining health and the strange signs in their home, Susana’s parents took her to be blessed by a priest, and cut her hair as short as it would go. El Sombrerón apparently moved on after that. No word on what Susana thought about the whole thing….it seems that normally even if the woman doesn’t die, she is cursed to live out life as a spinster (¡qué horror!), unloved and still secretly pining away.

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Probably not him, but a nice and dramatic picture, anyway.

Where did this monster come from? There’s a story about a Mayan family who sought to correct their errant son’s behavior with the help of a brujo, or medicine man. The brujo told them to make as big of a hat as possible, which they did, and he infused it with magic. The parents then left the hat in their house, and awoke one night to find their son struggling under it. The son couldn’t take the hat off, and endured endless ridicule from the townspeople as a result. He grew no taller as he aged, but he did grow more frightening. Using the magic from the hat, he learned to turn invisible, to scale walls and walk across ceilings. Ultimately he caused even more mischief than he had before.

The site where I found the story doesn’t mention anything about maidens, but it’s easy to imagine the boy reaching a certain age and and deciding to use magic to get what he wanted from the opposite sex. Another blogger points out that el Sombrerón’s obsession with long hair and braids might suggest Mayan origin, as well–or at least an appreciation of Guatemala’s indigenous roots. It’s an interesting thought, one more colorful than the simple explanations that cast him as the devil or a goblin.

Regardless of his origin, the take-aways of Sombrerón horror stories are clear: follow your parents’ orders and do not engage with strange men. Many writers have pointed out how depressingly gender-specific these lessons were intended to be; stories of el Sombrerón’s are told chiefly to scare young women into doing as they’re told. He reinforces the traditional courtship model (of women withholding their affection and attention until marriage) by demonstrating a worst-case scenario of what happens when you break it.

But el Sombrerón can teach us all a little about how dangerous passion can be. If you’re so obsessed with something (or someone) that you find yourself overlooking rocks in your food, it might be time to dial things back a little.

He also teaches us that getting a new haircut can be a fabulous way to bounce back after a romantic disaster.

 

 

Have you had any experience with men wearing strange hats and playing guitar? Share your story in the comments below.

 

*In addition, of course, to what they teach you about what storytellers want to teach you.
**Disregarding acoustical improbability for the sake of a smoother story.

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