When trying to come up with a topic for my first article, I realized that I had to look no further than to the three small figures that have found a home sitting on my desk. Before leaving El Salvador to come to study in France, my mother gave me a set of figurines to decorate my room and to remind me of a land that has a rich culture and history, stories and traditions. They’ve been a topic of conversation whenever friends come to visit, and I’m glad to be able to share their stories (and others!) with more people.
The three figures sitting on my desk: (From left to right) El Cadejo Negro, La Carreta Chillona, La Siguanaba
These three figures all represent different of the protagonists of myths and legends that have been passed down for generations among Salvadorans. Folklore is very prominent in Salvadoran culture, whether we are aware of it or not. From a young age, I remember having heard of La Siguanaba, El Cipitio, La Carreta Chillona, El Cadejo Blanco and El Cadejo Negro, taught in our Spanish classes or told over a blazing fire while on camping trips with classmates. There are too many myths to be able to count, but you consider this an introduction to some of the most famous folktales from El Salvador!
La Siguanaba (alternatively, Sihuanaba) is probably the most recognizable Salvadoran mythical figure and is also recognized in other Central American countries with variations in her story.
According to Salvadoran legend, La Siguanaba used to be known as Sihuehuet, which translates to “beautiful woman”. She caught the eye of a Nahua prince, who happened to be the son of the water god, Tlaloc, and had an affair with him that left her pregnant. Sihuehuet neglected her son after he was born, often abandoning him so she could meet with her lover. Once Tlaloc found out about her affair and her neglect, he cursed her to become la Siguanaba – hideous woman.
When looked at from afar, she would appear beautiful as she always had been, but once men got closer to her, she would transform into a hideous creature, with long hair and hanging breasts, that would scare her victims into insanity and even death. She was then condemned to roam the countryside, hunting for men who travel alone. She comes out at night, usually near bodies of water where she appears as a beautiful woman bathing to men who happen to come across her.
You may be wondering what happened to her neglected son, which brings us to the next famous Salvadoran legend: El Cipitio.
El Cipitio is also one of the most famous and important Salvadoran mythological figures and is widely referenced in Salvadoran culture.
Son of La Siguanaba, El Cipitio (from the Nahua word cipit – boy) was born out of his mother’s affair with a Nahua prince and grew up neglected by his mother. To feed himself, he would eat ashes from fireplaces, which gave him an inflated belly from malnourishment. When Tlaloc cursed La Siguanaba, it was not only to punish her for the neglect of her child, but also because of the affair she had with Tlaloc’s son. Because of this, he also cursed El Cipitio, condemning him to eternal youth and to forever remain ten years old. However, he is generally a very friendly figure if one happens to run into him.
He is often seen near rivers, where he looks for pretty women that he throws pebbles and flowers at to catch their attention. He always wears a large straw hat and often a white shirt that barely covers his large stomach, or he wears no clothes at all. His feet are twisted backward so that villagers that try to follow him always get lost looking in the opposite direction. He is not a hateful spirit, but he can be mocking towards some people and play pranks on them because he finds it entertaining.
El Cadejo Blanco and El Cadejo Negro
The Cadejo is a mythical creature from Latin American culture, with different variations throughout the various countries. In El Salvador, there are two versions of the Cadejo that act as counter-balances to each other: El Cadejo Blanco (The White Cadejo) and El Cadejo Negro (The Black Cadejo).
According to the legend, the Cadejo Blanco was created by God himself, wanting to send a protective spirit down to the people on Earth. The appearance of the Cadejo is of a large, white dog with blue eyes. When the Devil saw that God had created a peaceful spirit, he got envious and decided to create a spirit of his own: the Cadejo Negro, often appearing as a large black dog with red eyes.
It is possible to run into either Cadejo if you walk alone at night on the streets of El Salvador, but it is important to know which one is your companion as you make your way home. If you are accompanied by the Cadejo Blanco, you can be assured safe travels and protection on your journey. If you find yourself accompanied by the Cadejo Negro, you will not make it home, since he will push fear into your heart and steal your soul.
Should both Cadejos run into each other on your journey, there will be a large and intense fight between the two, with the Cadejo Blanco triumphing over the Cadejo Negro. This means that whomever the Cadejo Negro was accompanying will be able to go back home under the Cadejo Blanco’s protection. Still, it is often advised to not look back when walking on the streets of El Salvador at night, as you can never be sure if you have one of the spirits following you.
The Cadejos are not the only spirits to roam the streets at night, which brings us to our final myth.
La Carreta Chillona
The Carreta Chillona (The Shrieking Cart) is another famous Salvadoran legend, also known as the Carreta Bruja (The Witch Cart), and it has been passed down from generation to generation.
The Carreta Chillona travels on its own through the streets of villages in El Salvador past midnight, with no horse or ox pulling it along. It earns its name from the shrieking of its metallic wheels, scaring anyone who happens to hear it in the night. Some can also hear chains being pulled along the street and the rattling of bones, claiming that the Carreta Chillona is often heard before it is seen.
It is believed to have been blessed by the Devil, and that it carries the bones of all the deceased of the day, and that it seems to be guided by otherworldly spirits. While the origins of the Carreta Chillona are not certain, there is a strong belief that it was built by a Spaniard during the colonization era. He had learned the native people’s healing methods and used them to cure other Spaniards for high prices, and then refused to help the natives once they were infected with Spanish-brought diseases, leading to many of their deaths. The spirits of the deceased came back to haunt the Spaniard, forcing him to build a cart out of their bones and to carry them all back to the cemetery, where he disappeared, never to be seen again.
There are many other myths and stories that El Salvador has, but consider these an introduction and a small glimpse at the many mysteries that my small country holds!