Myths and Legends

Four Legends from San Luis Potosí

The state of San Luis Potosí is located in north-central Mexico.  A very rich mining area during colonial times, the state was settled by the Spanish in the late 1500s.  Before the arrival of the Spanish, the area was inhabited by several indigenous groups and was on the fringes of the Aztec Empire.  San Luis Potosí has a rich history and is home to many legends.  Here are 4.

1. The Old Indian Witch

This legend can trace itself to an actual trial recorded in colonial New Spain whose fragments survive to this day.  As is the case with many notorious historical events, stories and embellishments grow up around the facts of the events and make for some interesting tall tales.  This legend involves an extremely old indigenous woman and the setting is the newly founded Spanish town of San Luis Potosí sometime in the late 1590s.  History does not even register the name of this native woman.  All that is known about her was that she was born in Mexico sometime before the Conquest of the Aztecs which would make her in her late 80s or even over 90 years old at the time of her infamous trial.   As she was not baptized, she was simply called in the court transcripts, “The Old Indian Witch.”

As previously mentioned, she was a very old woman, and one of the last of the wise elders of her tribe.  Over the years, the Spanish had accused her of practicing sorcery and communing with the Devil.  She was also rumored to have conjured up malevolent spirits and supposedly could manipulate animals to do her bidding.  The colonial authorities routinely brought her in for questioning and jailed her briefly a few times.  In her extreme old age, this proud native woman was fed up with the decades of harassment from the Spanish.  According to the official colonial legal documents, it was in July of 1599 when this woman’s serious trouble began.  As a wise elder, she was a gifted speaker and knew several of the indigenous languages of the region.  Because of her age and her wisdom, she was well respected by all Indians in the San Luis Potosí area, regardless of tribe.  On July 18th of 1599, she encouraged other indigenous people – mostly the Guachichiles and Tlaxcaltecas – to go to church but not to hear the priest or take communion.  She told as many people who would listen to destroy everything inside these buildings, all the images and ornamentation.  After the destruction of the churches was complete, she told them, they needed go to the capital city of San Luis Potosí to kill every single one of the Spanish invaders they could get their hands on.  The “Old Indian Witch” promised eternal life to all those who followed her instructions. They believed her because she had a reputation for resuscitating the dead and for transforming her enemies into coyote or deer.  Although news of the woman’s rabble rousing frightened the Spaniards throughout the territory, the chief justice in the capital, a man named Don Gabriel Ortiz Fuenmayor, decided to put a stop to this old woman once and for all.  He hunted her down and brought her to trial.

The defense attorney in the trial claimed that the old woman was drunk, and she was getting too old and confused to know what she was doing.  Someone in the courtroom claimed that the woman was a lot more cunning than they were giving her credit for.  Also, she could shape-shift into an animal and many had supposedly witnessed her doing so.  A case was made for a speedy execution based on this witness testimony.  The prosecution reasoned that the woman would escape custody by simply changing herself into an animal and scurrying away.  The Spanish authorities took swift action.  They made a very public example of “The Old Indian Witch,” and they hanged her on the road between San Luis Potosí and Tlaxcala.

According to the legend, at the time of her death the old woman transformed herself into a coyote and slipped out of the hangman’s noose.  To this day a very large coyote can been spotted on the road where the old woman was hanged with people claiming that the animal is really the Indian Witch who was killed in the 1590s.

2.  The Alley of the Little Hands

It was the year 1780 when a European priest arrived at the city of San Luis Potosí. He was attracted by the mild climate and the hospitality of the people and decided to stay and live there.  It was easy for the cleric to find work as a teacher in one of the best schools of that time.

One day after returning from one of his pilgrimage trips to neighboring towns, he was cruelly murdered by the two teenage boys who accompanied him.Upon returning home the priest tired of the day decided to go to rest early while the boys tended to the horses and mules.  After the young men had finished their work with the animals, they killed the father in his sleep.

After intense interrogations by the authorities, the boys confessed their crime and indicated the place where they had hidden the money they had stolen from the priest and the weapon they used to kill him. The boys assured the investigators that the robbery had not been the motive of their crime.  The two were taking revenge for years of abuse at the hands of the priest.  Even so, this was no defense, and the killing of a priest was a very serious offense in colonial Mexico.  They were sentenced to death and the execution happened quickly.  After the execution, the authorities cut off the bodies’ hands so that they would be displayed as a lesson for the rest of the population.  The hands of the criminals hung on the outer wall of the gloomy house of the lonely and sad alley where the murdered priest lived. Since then it has been called El Callejón de las Manitos, or in English, “The Alley of the Little Hands.”  When people had to pass through this alley, they began to pray and did not stop praying it until they left it.

With the lesson supposedly learned, one day the authorities removed the teenage boys’ severed hands from the alley.  In a supernatural way they reappeared and despite the fact that over time the whole environment has been transformed, it is said that sometimes you can see the little hands floating in the air along with the apparition of a priest that disappears past the street where the Callejón de las Manitos once was.

3.  Juan del Jarro

Juan del Jarro was a beggar in the capital city of San Luis Potosí who lived sometime in the mid-1800s.  He was said to hate bathrooms, the month of July and extremely rich people.  Juan had two characteristics that differentiated him from any beggar. The first was that he was a pious man who shared his daily earnings with other needy people.  The other characteristic that made Juan special was his affection for the sayings and phrases full of common sense.  Juan del Jarro’s fame grew over the years and eventually everyone in the city knew him.   Juan was an enlightened madman and he was everyone’s friend.  He accepted invitations to sumptuous tables as well as humble kitchens.  As a guest in the homes of notable potosinos, the unpretentious beggar would often tell fortunes and make predictions of the future with high degrees of accuracy.  Juan’s life was pretty good until he began having confrontations with a local woman of some means. According to legend, this woman would make fun of Juan and yell at him when she saw him go through the central square.  The lady in question was convinced that Juan del Jarro was nothing more than a charlatan who tricked unbelievers to get rich.  When she saw Juan one day, she said, mockingly: “Tell me, fortune teller, what will be the name of my husband?””You will marry, but not with the father of the child in your womb,” replied the beggar.  This response was very unexpected and was made in front of many witnesses.  Shortly after this incident, the decent lady left the city in shame because her family discovered that Juan was right.

The legend grew, and it was said that Juan could know the future because he heard it in his terracotta jug, hence his name, Juan del Jarro, or “Juan of the Jug.”  The day Juan died San Luis Potosí paid a tribute to the poorest of its most illustrious.For a day, the mayor of the town proclaimed that no class distinctions would be recognized in the city.  The mayor reasoned that one of the lessons Juan taught the people of the town was that generosity knows no class.

4. The Seven-Headed Snake

Sometime in the early 1600s, the Spaniards started to penetrate the territories of the Potosí highlands to mine silver and build settlements.  The Spanish justifiably considered the area to be hostile as many indigenous groups had repelled invaders for decades.  The push by the Spanish had gotten more intense and the Natives had a hard time resisting.  Several clans of the Guachichil people decided to meet to find a way to prevent the invaders from advancing.During the meeting they agreed that the only way they could fight the superior weaponry of the Europeans was to have their elder sorcerers work with the forces of nature to repel the Spanish.

In Charcas, Mexquitic, Loma de San Pedro and the city of San Luis Potosí, there were already Spanish settlers whose armies did not hesitate to patrol the surrounding areas to kill natives. Missionaries also began to spread out from the established Spanish settlements to evangelize the countryside.

For a period of three moons the Guachichil sorcerers gathered in a desolate place of the highlands, where not even the most adventurous Spanish explorer would have penetrated. The magic of these elder magicians was powerful and thus achieved its purpose. When the October red moon rose on the horizon, a supernatural noise was heard across the countryside that left all those who listened paralyzed. The Guachichil sorcerers had given life to a gigantic snake with seven heads and eyes of fire.

At dawn a huge lonely raven emerged from nowhere, circled the sky several times and flew south and the snake followed. With that, the Guachichil sorcerers had commanded the hidden forces of nature so that the newly created creature would destroy the Spanish people. The raven was its guide. Where the snake passed, terror and destruction followed.  Several Spanish platoons tried to defeat this hideous monster, but few people survived to tell the tale.

Near what is now Solís in the municipality of Guadalupe, some Catholic friars had just founded a monastery to catechize the natives and also to protect them from the more violent and merciless of the Spanish settlers.  When they saw the gigantic crow coming towards them, one of the friars lit incense, took out the Christian images of the monastery and headed to face the mysterious bird.

His companions followed him, however when they saw that the horrible seven-headed snake was approaching they fled in terror, leaving the poor friar to his fate.The snake set on fire as much as it was in its path, leaving a trail of ashes behind it.The friar knelt and began to pray asking God to protect him and to destroy that hellish monster.

When the crow flew over his head, he stood up and said a few words in Latin;the black bird squawked, fell to the ground and became a hill.Then the friar said more prayers in Latin as the huge snake approached.  The monster spewed fire from its eyes and in seconds ended the clergyman’s life.However, before he died, the friar said one last prayer while raising his right arm and with those words the seven-headed snake also turned into a hill.

Although many years have passed since then and the traditional Guachichiles have since been absorbed into Mexican society, many people still remember that event.  The snake was destined to destroy the capital city of San Luis Potosí but didn’t, however.  Thanks to the faith of the friar, both the seven-headed snake and the raven were neutralized, but not forever. In the early 20th Century, one of the last surviving shamans of the Guachachil people claimed that the friar’s spell will one day end and that those hills will turn back into monsters and the snake and the crow will complete their mission.  It’s not a matter of “if,” but, “when.”


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