The legend of La Llorona has been a part of Hispanic culture in the Southwest since the days of the conquistadores. Though the tales vary from source to source, the one common thread is that La Llorona is a woman named Maria who is always dressed in a white gown, the spirit of a young Mexican mother who drowned her children in the river in a moment of rage or abandonment by her lover and then took her own life in her deep shame and sorrow. La Llorona’s disembodied spirit is said to haunt the rivers at night – especially the Rio Grande – where she can be heard weeping in remorse for her dead children. Children are cautioned not to go out after dark because La Llorona might murder or drown them too. Because the tale of the Weeping Woman originated with the Patriarchal Spanish conquest I have always been suspicious of the various versions of this story believing that its meaning has been distorted.
Immediately what comes to mind is the Mater Dolorosa, Our Lady of Sorrows, or Mother of Sorrows. All refer to the Virgin Mary, the only goddess left in Christianity. Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows is another name used to refer to this goddess. The Mater Dolorosa is also a key subject for Marian art in the Catholic Church.
In common religious Catholic imagery, the Virgin Mary is portrayed with seven long knives or daggers piercing her heart, often bleeding. Devotional prayers that consist of elaborate meditations on her Seven Sorrows are based on the prophecy of Simeon:
“And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary Jesus’s mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and a sign shall be spoken… a sword shall pierce through thy own soul so the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (my italics – if this isn’t an expression of an archetype I don’t know what is – an archetype is above all a container and paradoxically an empty pattern waiting to be filled)
La Llorona and Mary seem to have a lot in common. They even share the same name! Both lost children or a child that was ‘the son of god’. Both became an archetype for all women embodying the agony of “mother loss.”
This archetype from a Jungian standpoint is both a force of energy, an empty form that embodies information that any woman suffering the loss of a child may be drawn towards, often against her will. Archetypes need to be lived through.
Another way of expressing this notion is to state that an archetype is a pattern of energy that pulls a person who is experiencing the effects of a particular ‘field’ (like that of loss) into alignment with that field in either a positive or negative way. The sorrowful mother is one aspect of this negative field, and the “good mother” is the positive side of the archetype or field. Both comprise one whole.
I think the Spanish conquistadors (who were an unspeakably cruel people to those they oppressed) chose to put this dark twist on a heartbreaking story that does not originate with Christianity but stretches back to ancient goddess worship where goddesses include, but are not limited to, the weeping woman-mother.
I also think La Llorona is an aspect of the goddess that sorrowing women might find comforting in times of intolerable loss.
Just why the Spanish would turn this weeping woman into a seductress and killer of children forcing her to suffer for all eternity is also one way to destroy the power of women by blaming and shaming all imperfect mothers, making them evil, and teaching children and adults to fear (and hate?) women, the spirit world, the Powers of Nature as rivers and bodies of water, especially at Night.
Water has everything to do with the Power of the Feminine, and the Powers of Night are traditionally associated with “witch women.”
It is particularly sad that La Llarona is portrayed as a very young mother because it is often these child- women make the worst mistakes and end up paying for them over a lifetime. I certainly fall into this category having become a mother at 20, two decades before I developed into a person.
Recently, a young Mexican poet and performer, Israel Francisco Haros Lopez (I have written about him here) put a new twist on the La Llorona legend that moved me and explicated the potential power of La Llorona. What follows is his poem:
“ la llorona found her wail song
along the rivers of full moons remembering she was born to sing and breathe the songs of all the forgotten women
la llorona found refuge in knowing
soon many warrior women would remember
to sing cry to the full luna
the waters of the women would become balanced again
la llorona was full of broken mirrors, drenched in her throat drenched alongside her chest. Drenched along side her bloodied white dress drinking the blackened hearts of Spanish conquistadores
la llorona was full of broken light. Ripped through her chest the glowing white of coyoxauhqui’s* fullness. Dripping through her body. wailing the light of her children, and all her grandmothers all the way back to the first light.
*In Aztec mythology, Coyolxauhqui “Face painted with Bells” was a daughter of Coatlicue (Earth Goddess) and Mixcoatl and is the reigning goddess of the (southern) stars. She killed her own earth mother, Coatlicue.
It seems to me that this young man has tapped into La Llorona in a most creative way. Here La Llorona finds her voice helping women to witness forgotten sorrowful mothers with compassion. By doing so women can once again support other women redressing imbalances and the woman hatred endemic to patriarchy. In this poem La Llorona is also finally able to integrate the cruelty of those who harmed her (drinking the black hearts). Lopez reminds us that La Llorona is full of broken light like a mirror that has been shattered, and she can be made whole again by recovering her body and by having the courage to deal with internalized cultural woman hatred. No longer disembodied she is then able to reweave the Ancestor Thread that attaches her to lost children and grandmothers.
Israel’s words offer us hope as he moves the weeping woman story forward into the present, removing her victim “hood” by suggesting to all women that we can endure our sorrows, become warrior women redressing our imbalances, deal with self hatred, and that even as grieving women we can take back the power that was stolen from us “all the way back to the first light.”
After writing this essay last night I had a dream that “The Earth was on Fire” and that La Llorona was weeping for all living creatures and trees. In view of the terrifying fires that we are enduring here in the southwest where trees are dying by the millions the image of La Llorona’s weeping seems especially poignant.
Awakened abruptly at 4:45 AM by a single coyote wailing I was also struck by the thought that coyotes around here routinely howl down by the river’s edge at night. There are many stories of humans hearing Ll Llorona’s wailing by the river and my guess is that the occasional coyote cry is probably what people heard. Coyotes have many songs and I listen to them at night, but only twice have I heard this unsettling wail.
Sara is a naturalist, ethologist ( a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Northern New Mexico.