Contributed by Mieke Leenders
From foundational tales that validate our existence to terrifying urban legends that give credit to our deepest fears – our traditions define us. For the indigenous cultures of Costa Rica as well as the whole of Latin America, myths and legends were strongly tied to nature and wildlife. When the time came to give thanks for a blessed harvest or rationalize erratic weather, storytelling became the backbone of society. One of the most crucial protagonists in these legends, was the woman in her most elemental form.
The arrival of the Spanish settlers created new society that told its own stories. Less concerned about explaining the origin of the world which was Catholic by default, the legends turned to defining our darker inclinations as well as our fears. A woman’s place in these tales is varied but still fundamental. She can be a vessel of knowledge unique to her gender, or she can be the cause of insanity and terror for those who are either misguided or unlucky enough to encounter her.
The woman in indigenous myths and legends: Power, fertility and creation
The earth is a woman
In most cultures, women have a crucial role to play in the creation mythologies. Biologically as well as traditionally, women signify fertility and life, birth and destruction. One of the most elemental representations of the woman is that of Mother Earth – or Pachamama in the Inca mythology. The Pachamama is a fertility goddess who presides over the harvest, embodies the earth and mountains themselves and causes earthquakes. Indigenous tribes populating the Andean regions stretching through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and northern Argentina, still sacrifice to the Pachamama and credit her with immense power to this day.
The indigenous people of Costa Rica have their own version of the Pachamama. One of the most notable tribes that still populates Costa Rica’s Talamanca mountain ranges, is the BriBri. Next to having a matrilineal clan system, the BriBri mythology is also strongly defined by the legend of La Niña Tierra (the Girl Earth) – or Iriria in BriBri.
Iriria was the daughter of the Tapir (Namaitmi) who was the sister of Sibu – creator of the earth and its people. The earth was a barren rock that couldn’t accommodate any form of life. When a vampire bat bit Iriria and lush bushes and vines began to grow from the bat’s excrement, Sibu realized the young Iriria’s blood held the key to life. He sacrificed his niece and her blood fertilized the earth. Because of the central role the Tapir played in the creation myth, tapirs carry significant value in the BriBri culture and are revered along with Iriria, La Niña Tierra.
Costa Rican Volcanoes: Natural wonders shaped by love and tragedy
Volcanoes are formed when the magma within earth’s upper mantle forces its way to the surface. True story, but kind of boring. It comes as no surprise that before the existence of a scientific explanation, these fascinating and destructive forces of nature inspired beautiful stories. According to the legends, Costa Rica’s volcanoes were formed by love, tragedy and sacrifice.
Rincon de la Vieja
Turrialba Volcano: The guardian of lovers and unifier of tribes
There is no story as enticing as one of a forbidden love. The origin of the Turrialba volcano is tied to the story of Cira, a girl who fell in love with a warrior from a different tribe. One day when she traveled into the woods to meet her lover, her suspecting father and village chief followed her. Upon discovering the young couple, Cira’s father flew into a rage called for his archers to kill them. At this moment, the forest came alive and created a huge crater hiding the young lovers – marking the spot where they stood with smoke.
Irazu Volcano: A woman’s spirit
According to the legend, Irazu was the favorite daughter of a local leader by the name of Aquitaba. Guarco, the chief of a neighboring tribe, wanted to gain control of the entire Central Valley an called out for war. Not feeling confident his tribe would be victorious, Aquitaba took Irazu to the highest peak and offered her in sacrifice to the Gods in exchange for their favor in battle. As Guarco’s forces closed in, Aquitaba called upon his daughter’s spirit to guide their people to victory. Only moments later the mountain where Irazu had died exploded and fire and ash rained down on Guarco’s army.
Rincon de la Vieja – The old woman’s corner
Rincon de la Vieja doesn’t have an origin story for the volcano itself, but rather one for its name. There is actually more than one legend that explains why this volcano is referred to as old woman’s corner, but the most notable one repeats the theme of a doomed love that forced an indigenous Curubandá princess into eternal solitude.
The Curubandá princess had fallen in love with Mixcoac, the prince of an enemy tribe. When her father heard about the forbidden love, he threw Prince Mixcoac into Rincon de la Vieja’s crater. The princess withdrew from the village and when she gave birth to a baby, she threw her newborn son into the volcano with the desire to unite him with his father. Her grief took her to the most remote edge of the volcano. In the following years, she collected volcanic materials which she used to create medicine. Members of the surrounding tribes would visit her, stating they would travel to the old woman’s corner to obtain her miraculous medicine.
The woman has transformative powers
The Chorotega, the indigenous people that once populated large parts of Costa Rica, Guatamala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, created the legend of La Mona or La Mona Bruja (the witch monkey). This legend actually finds its roots in the Nahaul – a Mesoamerican myth that details the existence humans who can transform themselves into animals. When observing the behavior of certain animals, the indigenous tribes of Central America suspected some of them were more than they seemed. Monkeys in particular can be cruel, violent and have an echoing, shrieking laughter that goes with it. These traits combined with their distinct human-like behavior, gave birth to the legend of the witch who can transform herself into a monkey.
The legend speaks of women who have been abandoned by their men and are looking for ways to channel their anger. They would visit a chilamate tree at midnight and pick the flower that grew from it. After speaking the incantation, they would transform into a monkey that will viciously attack wandering men and could even drive them insane with the mere touch of their hand.
Different regions of the country will have different versions of this legend. Sometimes women can turn into a tapir or even a pig, like in the story mentioned below. Even though the legend originated from the Chorotega traditions, it is still given immense credit to this day, especially in the more rural areas of Costa Rica. The indigenous legend merged with the morality the Spanish settlers wanted to communicate in their stories and created an even darker canon.
The woman after the arrival of the Spanish: A blessing and a curse
Escazu – City of Witches
The Curubandá Princess isn’t the only famous witch in Costa Rica. Now one of the most upscale neighborhoods of San Jose, Escazu is also known as The City of Witches. Its emblem features a witch with a pointy hat flying her broom. By the 1600’s, Escazu was well known for its witches. Less so for the warted, cackling crone, but more so for the nurses and midwives that provided the locals with cures containing herbs, roots and animal parts. As their influence grew, so did their legend – soon they were attributed with possessing magical powers that could protect people from evil and even cure infertility and find partners for those who are lonely.
Interestingly, Costa Rica never participated in the witch trials and burnings that had spread across large parts of Europe by the 15th and 16th century. However, by the 1800s these witches were observed with a more critical eye due to the rise of the modern medical profession. The year of 1821 marked the Costa Rican Independence as well as a law that prohibits the witches’ practices that were now seen as fraudulent. The law doesn’t state any violent measures against these women, but does mention the use of certain repercussions such as restraining orders.
Maria La Negra
The Witches of Escazu gave birth to a terrifying legend known as Maria La Negra. Maria was a black woman who lived in Escazu and was known as one of the last, renowned witches in the area. Locals feared Maria because they suspected she possessed the power to transform herself into a giant, black pig. When her grandfather discovered her in a deep trance performing rituals behind her house, she warned him not to tell anybody about what he had seen. After learning that her grandfather has shared her secret with the neighbors, Maria felt vindictive. She cast a spell that caused the death of one of his favorite grandchildren and continuously harassed him in the form of the ghostly and monstrous black pig. The legend of Maria La Negra is one of many tales that credit women with transformative powers – usually choosing to do so after being disappointed in life.
The woman means danger
While the majority of legends mentioned so far credit women with a relatively complex nature, others have a more one-sided intent. The knowledge, wisdom and power that shape the women in these stories, have always carried a level of danger within it. Legends like La Mona and Maria La Negra are solid examples of that. Some of the later legends like to focus on this dark side and tell a horrifying story as well as a morality tale. In these legends a woman’s knowledge is dangerous, her beauty is deceiving, and her power is terrifying.
One such morality tale tells the story of the Segua, a cursed woman from Cartago who seeks to entrap wandering men. Once a beautiful girl, she fell in love with a Spanish officer who would trick her into sexual misconduct to then leave the city to never be heard from again. Driven insane by his disappearance and her own disgrace, she turned into a hideous monster locals refer to as La Segua. She is said to return to her beautiful self and wait by desolate roads for unsuspecting men. After they are lured in by her beauty and offer her a lift, they come face to face with a monster with the skull of a horse and burning red eyes.
The morality speaks to men and women both. It warns men about the dangers of beautiful and lonely women who can tempt them away from their families. For the women, it teaches that falling for the tricks of men can have terrible consequences.
La Llorona is a legend that is widely told in Costa Rica as well as the rest of Latin America. It tells the story of a beautiful young woman named Maria who lived in a rural community. When a wealthy nobleman was traveling through her village and noticed her, they were instantly drawn to each other’s charms. The nobleman proposed and Maria happily accepted. While Maria’s parents were ecstatic she was marrying into such a rich family, the nobleman’s father was very disappointed that his son was marrying into poverty. In order to escape his disapproving father, the couple built a house in the village and settled there.
After some years, Maria gave birth to two sons and was losing her youthful charm. Her husband was spending less and less time at home and when he did, he only had eye for his sons. When he showed up with a younger woman and said goodbye to his sons completely ignoring his wife, Maria fell into a fit of anger and took her children down into the river and drowned them. After returning to some level of calm, grief and regret instantly befell her and she frantically started to look for her boys. Some days later she was found dead by the river bank.
It is said that Maria was denied entrance into heaven until she found her children. She is doomed to wander the rivers for eternity, crying and looking for her sons.
La Llorona is a story mothers used to tell their children to prevent them from being outside too later. They would tell them that Maria, in a haze of grief and confusion, catches wandering children and drowns them in the river.
La Tulevieja is a legend that originated in Costa Rica and Panama. The story is a bit more layered and combines the legends of La Segua and La Llorona. The Tulevieja is a hybrid of a woman and a hawk similar to a Harpy. Like the Llorona, she is said to wander the earth looking for her lost child. She responds to the cries of newborns and will feed any baby she might find from her breasts that are always lactating. But like the Segua, she seeks to punish lustful men. When a man is attracted to her charm and round breasts, they will meet a terrible end being shredded by the Tulevieja’s hawk-like claws.
From creation myths to witches and morality tales, Costa Rican legends paint a varied picture of the woman and what she represents in a metaphorical sense. While the indigenous tribes value the woman as a natural force that gives life, heals but on occasion also destroys, the Spanish settlers are raised in a Catholic mindset – although not one that encouraged the level of violence it did in other parts of the world. For them, the woman that features in their legends is one that represents the worst sides of human nature. They seek to educate through fear by telling stories of people who come to an ugly end after being morally compromised. Legends and myths shed a rather unique light on a culture. They tell us what they value, what they fear, and what they believe is the essence of our existence.