Often was heard a woman weeping, crying out.
Loudly did she cry out at night. She walked about saying:
"My beloved sons, now we are about to go!"
Sometime she said: "My sons, where am I to take you".
—Florentine Codex (Book XII, 2-3)
The Nahua tradition says that a decade prior to the Spanish Conquistadors' arrival at the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire witnessed the eeriest of events, which was read as an omen of the end of an era. A fire streak blazed across the night sky and struck the god of fire Xiuhtecuhtli's home shortly after rain started to fall, and the god of war Huitzilopochtli's temple suddenly caught fire.
This marked the beginning of the Eight Bad Omens that would torment Emperor Montezuma and his people with the fatal premonitions about the Spanish Conquest. These omens convey a common sentiment in the most powerful civilization of Pre-Hispanic times as they witnessed how their world, their gods, and their beliefs were crushed under the catholic cross and Spanish swords. There is an omen in particular that transcended time and nested inside the collective imagination in form of a legend. Nowadays, it represents the richness of the oral tradition in central Mexico.
During those fateful days a flood battered Tenochtitlan, and rumors of woman who roamed the street at nighttime whilst weeping spread across the Aztec city. People called her "La Llorona" (The Weeping Woman). The Duran Codex claims that Montezuma was aware of this situation, and ordered his people, specially the Calpixques (priests in charge of carrying out the Tlatoani's [ruler] orders), to solve the mystery by engaging in a conversation with the uncanny entity:
"If you encounter the woman who roams the streets weeping and moaning, have them ask why she weeps and moans. Tell the priests to find out everything they can until they are satisfied with the information."
—Story of the Indies of New Spain (490-491)
This legend is also strongly connected with certain kind of goddesses. The supernatural side of La Llorona probably relates to these entities. Aztec beliefs state that women who died during childbirth become Cihuateteo, supernatural goddesses that, according to Bernardino de Sahagún, author of the Florentine Codex, floated in the air and would show up, from time to time, in front of the living by taking human form:
“Cihuateteo linger at crossroads where they may injure passersby, hence, parents forbade their children from going out during certain days of the year to prevent their encounter with the goddesses that would harm them."
-Florentine Codex (Book I)
People believed these goddesses adopted human form to haunt travelers and night wanderers, who listened to their peculiar laments. Meanwhile, people also linked these mysterious women with Cihuacoatl, the fertility goddess who ruled the Cihuateteo, which probably inspired the first version of the legend. According to the book History of Tlaxcala written by Diego Muñoz Camargo, the Aztec mother goddess roamed the city of Tenochtitlan announcing forthcoming tragedies.
The story of the weeping woman became famous after the fall of the Aztec Empire. During the colonial era, western elements from Spanish and Christian culture permeated the Aztec oral tradition, originating the contemporary version of the legend: A mestizo woman falls in love with a Spaniard, and after being rejected by him, she decides to drown their children before killing herself. Now, the ghost of a veiled and sorrowful woman appears on the streets at night, wailing for her lost children. "La Llorona" remains a popular name amongst people in Mexico and other countries of Latin America, such as Guatemala, Argentina, Colombia, and El Salvador.
Want to know more about supernatural beings and folklore? Read the story of Japan's religion of ghosts. You can also read about the places that lead to the gates of Hell.
Translated by Andrea Valle