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 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 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!