Mexican Mythology: Duendes and Aluxes

Mexico is a country full of old myths and tales, and although more than 80% of the people are Catholics, most of them seem to believe in the supernatural. I find it fascinating and comforting to see how old Mayan believes live on, and how some traditions are being passed on from generation to generation.

Recently, somebody told me about duendes, little elves in the Latin American mythology similar to leprechauns or Scandinavian trolls. Duendes are about 20 inches (50 cm) tall and run around naked. Both male and female duendes have very long hair, and the males also grow long beards. They live in large clans in the jungle and feed mostly on fruits like figs.

English: Shoe, supposedly from a duende, at th...

English: Shoe, supposedly from a duende, at the Museo de los Duendes in Huasca de Ocampo, Hidalgo, Mexico (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only few grown-ups can see them – unless duendes get drunk, then they seem to lose all caution. If you catch a duende in that moment, you can keep him and have him do all kinds of chores for you. However, you have to treat him nicely and always offer him the first bite of your food in that you throw it over your shoulder. If you don’t, the duende will get angry and spoil your food. In former times, people used to have a much closer relationship with duendes and offer them food and licquor. Nowadays, with the destruction of large parts of the jungle, duendes have retreated farther away from the people.

A small relief figure on a Classic Period Maya...

A small relief figure on a Classic Period Maya Civilization olla (water) jar in Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, Belize. The figure lacks thumbs and was described by a tour guide as a mythological Duende, though this is hyperbole due to the probable Spanish origin for the Duende myth in the Americas; this figure dates to at least 800 years before the conquest and may depict a monkey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, we merely sense them in the wind, sometimes we catch an unfamiliar smell or hear them whispering. But since duende language is different from ours, we cannot understand what they are saying. That doesn’t seem to bother the little children, though, to whom they are visible. Being a little mischievous and childlike, duendes enjoy playing with them. Our housekeeper A. who is always my most reliable source for all questions on Mexican everyday life, told me that her little daughter used to chat with them a lot until A. told her to stop. Apparently, children can easily become enchanted by duendes and follow them into the woods. The duendes don’t harm them, they just play with them for a while and finally let them return to their homes, but which mother fancies a supernatural playdate that might go on for days?

A.’s sister had an encounter with duendes on her wedding day: The morning they were to be married, all their papers had gone missing. Both, bride and groom, asked everybody, but nobody had seen the papers. Desperate, A.’s sister went up to her bedroom to cry and noticed a very unusual smell of mango although there was no mango tree near the house. It dawned on her, that some cheeky duende might have played a trick on her, and she started to search the bedroom. And there under the mattress were all the papers they needed to get married!

And then my student A. told me that her uncle once met a duende on his way back home from work. He was riding his bicycle through a forest, and there was this little guy standing on the side of the road, holding bunches of fish in both hands. He asked A.’s uncle whether he could mount the bike and ride with him for a while, and the uncle being a little scared said yes. The little duende was sitting behind him, clutching hard on his shoulders, but after a while he just disappeared. Some might say that a little too much tequila after a long day at work might have easily taken the shape of a duende that evening, but A.’s uncle still insists on this incident to be true. However, I am not sure whether that wasn’t rather an alux.

This is what a female alux would be wearing.

Very often, people get confused with duendes and aluxes, a Mayan spirit. Aluxes look like miniature maya people wearing the same kind of costume but are only knee high. Aluxes are visible but can take any shape and form if it serves their purpose. It is said that aluxes often stop farmers or travellers and ask for an offering. If you don’t oblige, the alux will spread illness and wreak havoc, but if you do, they will bring you good luck and protect you from any harm.

So in case one of those little guys stops you during your next trip around Mexico, you better be nice!


22 thoughts on “Mexican Mythology: Duendes and Aluxes

    • Oh, I’d love that! Please do! I still remember how my parents told me how the Chinese wouldn’t build anything straight but winding so that the ghosts couldn’t follow them. That made a huge impression on me when I was little!

  1. I think we may have had a sneaky little duende in our house growing up, only we called him “Mr. Nobody” and he was responsible for misplacing all kinds of things and making rooms untidy (because certainly one of us three children wouldn’t have been responsible for these things).

    Nice superstition, thanks for sharing it! I will think of the little duendes the next time my husband misplaces his keys/phone/wallet (all of which happen frequently).

    • Mr. Nobody – how cute! My dad used to call those “the little green…” key hider, vase breaker, cookie eater…
      Yes, I think those superstitions are quite charming, makes everyday life more mysterious. AND of course, we get to blame someone else!
      Thanks for reading!

    • No, I hadn’t heard of that. But I know that “duende” is often picked for whatever names, be it restaurants or shops or, I believe, even bands which would fit then.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Pingback: Mexican Mythology: Aluxes and the Cancun Airport Bridge | Expatially Mexico

  3. no son supersticiones,yo se de casos de personas que conozco de mi pueblo que an visto duendes,y ellos dicen que son como ninos,son muy traviesos y les gusta jugar,solo que no dejan que los toques,yo recuerdo q cuando era nino mis padres me decian que tuviera cuidado con los duendes por que se llababan alos ninos,ya que vivia en un rancho alejado de la gente.Yo nunca vi uno,apesar de que recorri esos cerros,pero no toda la gente los ve…En muchos estados de la republica se conoce de estos acontecimientos y tienen gran coincidencia….La ultima vez que supe de duendes,fue en una ocacion cuando se hacian pruebas de terreno para localizar una mina de oro,en una montana en mi pueblo trabajaban un estadouinidense o canadiense no se,el cuento es de que el se quedaba en la montana cuidando todo el equipo,pero en una de esas noches, al pasar por una cueva, alguien le aventaba piedra,el sin pensar ni imaginarse busco quien le aventaba piedras, y se percato de que eran unos ninos,cuando el quiso ir para preguntarles o decirles cual era el problema, los ninos se metieron en la cueva y ya nunca salieron…Al otro dia al llegar todos los que ahi laboraban, que era gente del pueblo, el preguto que quien vivia ahi, ya que alguien lo habia molestado la noche anterior, alo cuan todos respondieron, en este cerro no vive nadie, los que te hicieron maldades fueron los duendes…los que me contaron esta historia son amigos mios que laboraban ahi,el canadiense no tenia porque mentir,no fumaba drogas ni hongos ni algo parecido…como estas historias se muchas de amigos….entonces no creo que supesticion….

    • Do you fear your house might be infested? 😮 Nobody has ever told me anything about how to get rid of them. I suppose treating them nicely is the solution. And keeping an eye on your children!
      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Duendes are real. No joke.They exist. Duendes, la llorona, and other creatures exist in Mexico and for some reason Mexico seems more plagued with the supernatural than here in the united states. So be careful…….

  5. Yes the supernatural is real the reason why there in Mexico is cuz it’s nature ….my father tells me lots of stories of elves and fairies and demons I even saw the weeper la llorona once in Mexico It’s REAL

    • Hey Lucy, Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I agree, usually people who live very close with nature are more open to these kinds of things. It reminds me a bit of the Icelandic trolls.
      And wow, you saw La Llorona? Such a sad story!
      Thanks for your comment!

      • I live in a small town of out off Laredo I have a friend he’s son was chased by a duende like he just wanted to play I want to go check the place

  6. Duendes are not innocent or harmless . They are evil and devious. I was told about them when I was little. My mother is zapoteco Indian growing up in the Wahaka vera cruz region. Duendes are not nice but insidious.

  7. I always heard that Duendes were the spirits of children who died before being baptized. Sounds like something the Catholic Church would have spread about.

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