Charmed, I’m sure: the Encantado

The rapidly disappearing wonderland of the Amazon holds many surprises–both ones that might help humanity (see: a concentrated host of plants with anti-cancer properties), and others that might drive it insane (see: the black caiman, green anaconda, and vampire fish). As usual, we’re going to focus on something from the latter category.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember my post on the Scottish Finfolk back in 2016. I came across the encantado then, but its legend was so similar to that of the Finfolk that I didn’t want to post about them back to back.

In both cases, we have water-based monsters who are able to pass as human. Despite living in magical, utopic kingdoms, neither are satisfied with their lot. They thus come ashore to seduce people or steal them away. Humans often blame them for unwanted pregnancies and disappearances (though some of that may be just be a cover for their own, mortal chicanery).

After that, the two myths diverge. Encantados are more friendly than the sinister Finfolk; they can get humans to like or even love them. They’re also more strange. Instead of coming from the ocean, they come from the silty freshwater of the Amazon. And instead of their natural state being vaguely humanoid, they are large, fleshy, pink dolphins.

Boto dolphin
…ladies.*

Whether you believe in the encantados or not, these dolphins–boto, in the local lexicon–are very real. These intelligent, curious creatures can get to be over 8 feet and 400 pounds. Scars cover their backs, relics from fighting each other. They have long snouts filled with long, slender teeth, and bulbous foreheads used for echolocation.  Buried in all that flesh are eyes are so small that some assume they’re blind. But botos can see quite well. In fact, legend has it that they are so perceptive that looking into their eyes will give you nightmares for the rest of your life.

Since it can be difficult to flirt when you have a giant, tooth-filled snout, encantados disguise themselves as humans when they come ashore (which is not that often, and only at night). They are drawn especially by parties, where their skills at seduction and music can be best appreciated. Humans can be so taken with them that when an encantado goes to leave–hurrying to return to the water before the break of day–a group will chase it, begging it to stay.

Boto dolphin (encantado)
Abduction reenactment.**

That’s how the encantado likes it. But woe betide anyone who gets too close. In addition to kidnapping and/or leaving women with unwanted children, encantados turn married men into babies and implant them in their wives’ wombs. They can enchant humans into doing their bidding, make them horribly sick, drive them insane, kill them, or, most troublingly, turn them into doughy dolphins themselves. They can also control the weather. I’m sure that’s fun during the flooding season.

Once you’ve been targeted by an encantado, only a shaman can save you. Many lay people take the “ounce of prevention” philosophy and never go into the river alone, avoiding it entirely when it’s dark. Even then, no one can be sure of their safety. Stories tell of canoers driven mad by an encantado simply swimming along behind them, doing nothing more than gently bumping their boat.

Perhaps because of these legends, people native to the Amazon have historically treated the boto with great respect. Killing or eating one was on par with killing or eating a human, and might bring you even worse luck. But, as usual, industrialization has come in and messed everything up. The dolphins are under threat by overfishing, pollution, and all the other familiar forces of environmental destruction.

Regardless of supernatural status, the boto are fighting back. One researcher described how in the course of just a few decades, the dolphins went from getting tangled in fishing nets to treating them as a buffet. Maybe they’ll adapt to all the other crap we’re throwing at them, too. And if they’re as scary as the legends say they are, god help us if they do.

boto dolphin (encantado) eye
They’ll be watching.***

 

Want to avoid the encantados’ revenge? The Amazon Conservation Team partners with indigenous peoples to protect the rainforest. They also have great ratings on Charity Navigator. Check them out.

 

 

*Image courtesy of Oceancetaceen [CC BY-SA 2.0], from Wikimedia Commons

**Image courtesy of Christoph2007 17:20, 31. Jul. 2007 (CEST) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

***Image courtesy of Nortondefeis [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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Not what I meant by “the Crocodile Rock”: Cipactli

Happy new year, everyone! On this, the arbitrary day which the Western world has deemed the day we turn the page, I wanted to bring you a monster appropriate for the occasion: one centered around beginnings, creation, and life, with all its attendant horror.

This post has been brought to you by Aztec mythology.

15th and 16th century Aztecs (also known as the Mexica) had different religious views than what the average American is probably used to. They were polytheistic and carried out a huge number of important, complicated rituals throughout the year. Many of these placed a high value in sacrifice–not just the human sacrifices that they are (in)famous for, but sacrifices in general: self-sacrifice with bloodletting, sacrificing of animals, food, flowers, etc.  Sacrifice and death were bound to life: you could not get one without the other. So it’s not super surprising that in (at least one of) their creation myths, sacrifice plays an essential role.

The story goes like this:

In the beginning, a dual god created itself out of nothing, and then from itself created four sons, each of which claimed a cardinal direction. The gods then went about trying to create the earth, but the task was difficult, and on their first attempt managed only to create a vast, endless ocean and Cipactli, the subject of our tale.

Cipactli was something like a crocodile, if a crocodile were the size of Pangea and had some characteristics that were less crocodilian and more like a fish or a toad. Cipactli was extra special in that they (I’m using a general pronoun because Cipactli had, at least according to Wikipedia, “indefinite gender”) had a mouth on every single joint of their body.

Cipactli
An image of Cipactli, our hero (?). I am wondering if we can assume that all the red spots are blood. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If we want to stop to do some math here: (insanely large carnivorous monster) + (mouths multi-jointed nightmares) = a hideous number of teeth and an insatiable hunger for blood. A regular crocodile is, frankly, bad enough, but this Cipactli was something else. The gods discovered the extent of their problem quickly, since whenever they tried to create something else, Cipactli’s mouths would swallow it whole. This made progress difficult, and the gods decided that they needed to kill the monster so that everything could move forward. But when Cipactli had teeth at every angle, how could the gods even hope to make an approach?

Mask of Tezcatlipoca
Mask of Tezcatlipoca, courtesy of Manu on Flickr.

Enter Tezcatlipoca, “the Smoking Mirror,” lord of the night sky, the north, discord, divination, beauty, and sorcery, among other things. He was soon to become one of the gods the Aztec people feared and revered the most. They would call him by many names: “Enemy of Both Sides,” “Lord of the Near and Nigh,” “He By Whom We Live,” and, most tellingly, “We Are His Slaves.” He was often depicted with a black and yellow stripe across his face, an obsidian mirror on his chest, and another mirror, bone or a snake taking place of his right foot. But his foot was not always missing.

Here, at the dawn of time, Tezcatlipoca approached Cipactli first, sacrificing himself so that the other gods could make their move. One of Cipactli’s mouths snapped shut around Tezcatlipoca’s foot, and as the blood spurted, the gods all grabbed the monster and tore them apart. Cipactli’s body became mountains, valleys, forests, and plains, all floating in the primordial soup of the sea. Thus the gods were able to begin their attempts at creating life–though they would go through four cycles of birth and violent destruction before arriving at the world we know today.

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A drawing by Giggette over at Wikimedia Commons of what appears to be the Cipactli battle scene, judging by how pissed everyone looks.

But the story doesn’t end there. Cipactli may have been defeated, but their hunger never stopped. Still the hills and ravines and all the odd corners of the earth are covered with mouths that crave the blood and hearts of men. And still humanity has not–perhaps cannot–repay its blood debt to Tezcatlipoca for the sacrifice of his foot.

But by Jove, the Aztecs tried.

Obviously we do not understand Aztec culture the same way they did–Spanish conquistador accounts were biased (to put it mildly), and have colored our view of things unfairly. What might seem horrific to us might have been moving or even beautiful to them. Our own culture is not without its appreciation for sacrifice–take Jesus, for example–but nowadays, we tend to shy away when things get visceral.

But it is a comforting thing, to trust that life and beauty grow out of death, even at its most frightening.

So here’s to the New Year, which, like every year, will doubtless bring us a little bit of both. May you and yours be kept safe and happy, far away from the teeth between the hills.

New year, new you! What fresh new look will you adopt to help stave off the existential dread? Share your style in the comments below.

 

 

For more of Manu’s awesome stuff on Flickr, go here!

Hey! My eyes are down here: The Blemmyae

I was fortunate enough to be able to study abroad in Spain a few years ago. It was a great time in general, but I especially enjoyed going to museums and seeing the variety of weird medieval stuff they had on display. The description placards rarely satisfied me–though I might learn plenty about what materials were used to build something or when the creator was born, I would be left squinting at depictions of brightly colored monsters on somebody’s dresser or what have you for ten minutes at a time, wondering, what the f— is that?

Imagine my delight on recently happening upon an image like this, then:

Royal 15 E.VI, f.21v
“…oh hey…”

…next to an actual explanation!

The Blemmyae–or Blemmyes, or akephaloi–are pretty old mythical beings–older than Christianity. They first show up as far back as Herodotus’s Histories (440 B.C.): unnamed headless humanoids spoken of in the same breath as horned asses and men with dog heads who lived together on the “exceedingly mountainous and wooded” Eastern edge of Libya, on the outskirts of the “civilized” world. From there on out, the Blemmyae would be confined to outskirts, even as the world expanded and the definition of outskirts changed.

Mela (the earliest Roman geographer, first century A.D.)  was indirectly responsible for giving them their name. He wrote that there was a tribe near Nubia with the name “Blemyae,” and then Pliny the Elder (the guy who wrote the first encyclopedia) turned around and said that that tribe was the one that might be described as “[having] no heads, their mouths and eyes being seated in their breasts.” His is the description that has defined the Blemmyae since, and led to many an amusing illustration.

blemmyes
“My belly hair starts at my lip!”

Mind you, there was an actual nomadic kingdom of people in that area called the Blemmye that existed in Nubia from around 600 B.C. to 300 A.D.. They were a subset of the Beja people (who are still around today), and had entirely ordinary heads. Modern commentators guess that the rumors of their “headlessness” might have come from unusual hairstyles, shields with faces on them, or an ability to raise their shoulders high and lower their head as they marched forward into battle. That, or Pliny was just xenophobic and making stuff up.

Pretty easy to see through, right? You would think that people would have figured that out and let the idea die, especially as knowledge expanded and it became apparent that most everyone’s neighbors were just regular people. There was also critical physiological questions that hadn’t been answered: if the Blemmyae’s faces were in their chests, where were their brains? Their other organs? It was all a little suspect, but the idea of people with faces in their chests turned out to be stickier than simple explanations or common sense.

The Blemmyae appeared in writings in the 7th or 8th century, and then again in 1121, where descriptions now have them at 12 feet tall and 7 feet wide, and of a golden color for some reason. These were incorporated into the Alexander Romances, where they were shrunk back down again to 6 feet tall and then 30 of them captured to be shown to the world.

Then they spread. Medieval maps showed them further east into India and the the area north of the Himalayan mountains. They appeared in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville described as “folk of foul stature and of cursed kind that have no heads. And their eyes be in their shoulders” on an island in Asia.  Sir Walter Raleigh, an English explorer, claimed that they were also in South America: “eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts, and that a long train of hair groweth backward between their shoulders.”

So they were everywhere–just nowhere where Europeans could easily go and see them with their own eyes. And at first they were just a morbid curiosity, something to be frightened by only because it’s different looking.

Then came Shakespeare.

Othello, Act 1, Scene 3: “It was my hint to speak—such was my process—And of the Cannibals that each other eat, the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders.”

Here is why we learn to be careful with sentence structure, ladies and gents. Ole’ Billy meant that the Anthropophagi were the cannibals, and that then there was a separate group (the Blemmyae) with heads beneath their shoulders. Instead, people heard that and went, “oh wow. Monsters with faces in their chest that eat people! Gee willikers!”

Which is how Blemmyae images morphed from this into this.

These days, the Blemmyae themselves don’t seem to be in style so much as the Anthropophagi-Blemmyae combination does. Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series seems to have something to do with it that…researching this post has made me put his books on my reading list. Still, though blood-soaked cannibals are great fun, there will always be a soft spot in my heart for anything that looks like this:

blemmyerschedelsche_weltchronik_d_012
“Ladies.”

Just can’t say no to that kind of charm.

 

Has excessive slouching led people to believe you might be one of the Blemmyae? Do you think it would be harder or easier to brush your teeth if your mouth was in your chest? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

ALL IMAGES: Courtesy of Wikimedia commons, and people long dead.

Grisly Green Giants: On Monstrous Plants

I love the outdoors. I love camping, hiking, and walking around without a flashlight at night while trying to guess the shape of the shadows next to me. But whenever I sleep under the stars, there’s a small part of my brain that remains wide awake, watchful of anything that might approach. I always feel safer under the cover of trees. But maybe the trees are what I should be afraid of.

In honor of this month’s Supermoon, let’s do something a little different. Instead of focusing on one specific type of monster plant, I want to give you an idea of the range and themes of what’s out there. Though the plants can be found all over the world, some have a number of similarities. This list will focus largely on the ones with human (or potential human) victims, because you’re visiting a monster blog, and things wouldn’t be as fun without the potential for death or dismemberment.

Like true botanists, let’s categorize our plants into groups:

1. Stranglers

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Image courtesy of Jonathan Williams on Flickr.

These are the most basic of the three types. Many monster plants seem to employ at least some degree of physical grabbing or binding to keep their prey still while they work on them; pure stranglers just squeeze and squeeze until their victim has breathed their last, then drop the corpse and soak up the blood and nutrients therein.

One good example of a Strangler is the Brazilian Devil Tree. It’s said to camouflage its branches in nearby foliage until its prey gets close enough to grab, then snaps out, wrapping quickly around the victim’s torso and throat, and tightens, boa-constrictor-style, until the victim is dead.  

Then there’s the account of a planter from Mississippi who visited the Filipino region of Mindanao cerca 1925. The man and his guide came upon a large, gray tree surrounded by bones and the smell of rotting meat. The Mississippian noticed a human skull among those bones, and started to approach it before his guide called out in warning. He then looked up to find the tree leaning toward him, gracefully, confidently, branches swaying like cobras on the approach. Mesmerized, the man stood completely still. One branch got as close as the his eyebrow–close enough that he could see the spines along its leaves and smell the stench of carrion that emanated from it–before his guide pulled him back out of reach. The tree grasped for them still, straining, as they turned heel and fled.

2. Vampires

Undead hotties and mosquitoes aren’t the only ones who can suck a little blood. Some say plants can thirst for it desperately, be it from a rat, dog, or human.

the_ya-te-veo
The Yateveo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the most famous vampire plants  is the Yate-veo of Central America (thanks to my bachelor’s degree, I can share that “ya te veo” means roughly “I can already see you.” Charming, right?). Like the Brazilian Devil tree, this monstrous plant hides its weapons–this time long needles lined with spikes–under leaves or even underground. Then when an animal (or human) walks by, the Yate-veo snaps up to impale them. The needles draw the victim’s blood up into the branches; presumably if he doesn’t get away quickly, he can be bled out where he stands.

Another account comes from naturalist Mr. Dunstan, who sought to gather plant specimens in Nicaragua some time ago (no word on the exact date…most of these stories take place in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s, so let’s call it 1900 even). Dunstan was wading through a swamp with his dog and a team of helpers when he lost sight of the former and heard him start to whine and yelp. He turned back to find his poor canine trapped in a nest of black vines, all covered in a sticky, malodorous pus that seemed to ooze from the plant itself. Dunstan and his men tried to cut the dog away, but quickly found the vines wrapping around their own arms and hands, leaving blisters and burns wherever they went. Once the plant had latched on, it was nearly impossible to remove without also tearing off your skin.

The team did manage to get the dog out, but barely–the little guy could hardly walk, and was super disoriented. Dunstan, being a crazy plant person, went back later to try and study their attacker (locals informed him it was called the Devil’s Snare), but given the nature of the beast, it proved difficult to get very close. Here’s what he did find:

“The plant’s power of suction is contained within a number of infinitesimal mouths or little suckers, which, ordinarily closed, open for the reception of food. If the substance is animal, the blood is drawn off and the carcass or refuse then dropped. A lump of raw meat being thrown to it, in the short space of five minutes the blood will be thoroughly drunk off and the mass thrown aside. Its voracity is almost beyond belief.”

Needless to stay, Dunstan didn’t stick around much longer after that.

3. Druggers

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Generic scary tree image from Pixabay!

Our final group is possibly the most frightening one. These are the plants that lull their victims to sleep, stupor, or madness before devouring their unresisting bodies alive. The earliest tale of this type comes the 1500’s, when an explorer in the South Pacific reported a ginormous flower that exuded pheromones to make anyone who came around it very sleepy. Like idiots, its victims would purportedly lie down on the plant’s soft petals, whereupon the flower would close and digest them while they slept.

The other example of a Drugger plant is probably one of the most famous monster plant stories around. In 1874, German explorer Karl Liche reported a sort of giant Malagasy pineapple that people would supposedly sacrifice women to. The victims would be forced to drink its sap, which would both drug them and drive them insane. Here’s Liche’s description:

“The slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening with cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey.”

Of course, Liche’s account was called into question for being so shamelessly sensationalist. Most scholars now believe that the explorer didn’t even exist–that a journalist made both him and the (rather xenophobic) story up (though, in an interesting plot twist, there may be no evidence that journalist existed either). Still, people kept up the search for that killer pineapple for a few generations. Later expeditions revealed either everyone knowing about the plant but no one having seen it, or (later) no one having heard of the plant, but knowing instead about another carnivorous plant, this time one that exudes poisonous gas. So the world turns ‘round.

***

How much stock should we put in these stories? If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice the common thread of white explorers being freaked out by foreign flora and/or telling wild tales that exoticize their experiences abroad and make them look like heroes. Given that, it may very well be that many of these stories are just stories.

Then again, there have been accounts of man-eating plants from all over the world, independent of these explorers. This post has really only scratched the surface…there are many more out there, one as recently as 2007 (a case of a cow-eating tree in India). We know of existing plants that can eat things as big as rats.  Who’s to say there might not be something even worse?

Until next time…I’ve got to go feed my ferns.

 

At the Everett Children's Garden in the New York Botanical Garden.
Courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

 

Have you ever been roughed up by a tree root or passing rosebush? Does Mother Earth have a vendetta against you for all those desk plants you’ve killed over the years? Share your story in the comments below.

Slim Fast: The Pishtaco

Last month’s post on el Sombrerón reminded a couple of my friends of a monster their old high school Spanish teacher told them about. They’d forgotten what the creature was called, but  remembered its legacy well enough for it to still disturb them some ten years later. A quick Google search yielded a goldmine of stories about this monster: the Pishtaco, a  400-year-old Peruvian terror who actually resurfaced in the news back in 2009. In him, we have a magnificent example of how monsters can dramatize the very real nightmares of a community.

Let’s roll back to the legend’s birth. In 1571 Spanish priest Cristóbal de Molina noted a specific revulsion among the Inca: they absolutely refused to bring firewood into the homes the conquistadors; not out of spite, but out of fear. It seemed that word had gotten around that during a battle some fifty years earlier, the Spanish, lacking proper dressing for their wounds, had taken Incan corpses, cut strips of flesh from their backs, and used the some human fat instead.

Now, the Inca knew that their people’s grease must be valuable–certainly it was of a better quality than that of the foreigners, as the Inca grew up with a hardier, healthier lifestyle. Fat was important in their culture; they had a whole deity devoted to it. The Spanish were already exploiting them in almost every other way–why not use that quality fat, as well? The Inca were sure that Spanish were willing to kill them for it to use in their cryptic European medicines.

retablo11-pistaku
A small yet horrifying depiction of Pishtacos in action, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ridiculous? Perhaps not. Funny thing: Europeans really did use human ingredients in their quests for self-improvement, and often. Sure, they often got said ingredients from condemned criminals, but did they treat the indigenous Americans any better? Fat especially was considered a remedy for arthritis and gout, and could be used to speed the healing process. Regardless of whether the Spaniards intended to take it from the Inca or not, Incan fears were not entirely unfounded. Thus the soul of the Pishtaco was born.

This fat-sucking devil appears rather human, and rather European–often he’s even described as having blonde hair. Typically handsome and sporting an impressive beard, the Pishtaco changes his clothing to stay more or less modern with the times. He carries a knife; his eyes flash in the dark. There are stories of him raising a hand to his intended victim, only for the victim to realize that the Pishtaco’s fingers are writhing like worms. As the fingers drop to the the ground, the victim then freezes with terror, giving the creature his opening to attack. This is one of many examples that illustrate how adept the creature is at hypnosis; he doesn’t seem to need more than a command or a look to secure his victim’s fate.

The Pishtaco has been categorized by some as a vampire, albeit an odd one. Though it’s true that in some versions of the legends he eats what fat he extracts, more often he seeks to profit from it, usually by selling it to other foreigners. This role is one of the most fascinating aspects about the creature: he’s an outsider, an invasive species. What exactly the Europeans have been suspected to do with the fat he sells them has changed over the years…first it was incorporated into medicine, then friars were suspected of using it to oil their church bells to make them more sonorous, now it could be used in plane engines or beauty products.

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Human fat, courtesy of Bullenwachter over at Wikimedia Commons. You’re welcome.

So how does he extract the fat from his victims? In the more supernatural versions of the tale, the Pishtaco sucks the fat out through his victim’s skin or inserts a tube to tap them like a woodsman taps sap from a tree. Said to be priapic and rather violent, he occasionally rapes them while he’s at it. Sometimes the victim even survives the procedure, finding a strange gaps in their memory and feeling suddenly lightheaded and weak. In the more literal (and recent) accounts, the Pishtaco is less forgiving. He dismembers the victim entirely, then strings their body parts up to hand over an open flame, bottles lined under to collect their dripping fat.

It was a few of these grease-filled bottles that caused such a stir in 2009. The Peruvian police reported that they’d apprehended a group of men who had been trafficking human lard since the 1980’s. There was video footage of the trafficker’s lab, complete with stacks of  bones and a half-rotted man’s head. One of the men confessed to selling the bottles of fat–which tested positive as human–to the Italian Mafiosi for $15,000 a pop. The police said that this grease was to be used in European skin softener. The legendary Pishtaco had suddenly come terribly to life.

Fortunately, this particular incident turned out to be a hoax: there wasn’t really any fat sold to the Europeans (or at least, no one could find anyone who might have been buying it), and the numbers and locations of alleged victims and perpetrators didn’t add up. Unfortunately, the police were the ones perpetrating the hoax, and had done so to cover up a secret governmental death squad that killed 46 people over the span of two years. This was a horror of its own, and did little to quell Peruvians’ fears. People continued (and still continue) to see Pishtacos everywhere. They are the businessman with his briefcase; the fellow with headphones giving you the side-eye. Some say the Pishtacos are planning an onslaught; some even claim they plan to harvest hundreds of Peruvians to pay off the national debt.

Though there hasn’t been any big news since the police scare, I doubt that the Pishtaco’s story is over. Even if human fat trafficking is a stretch, organ trafficking isn’t. What’s more, the perpetrators in 2009  never themselves claimed to be selling things to cosmetic companies–they were more in the line of Satanic candles, which is a little easier to imagine, so there might have be some truth in that tale. Between all this and the terrible historical context of the Andes, it’s no wonder people are jumpy.

Sometimes, the things that go bump in the night come uncomfortably close to reality.

 

Have you seen (or heard) any Pishtaco-type tales? Did you pronounce the word “fish taco” or “pistachio” in your head, and then giggle uncontrollably? Share your story in the comments below.

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.