Myths and Legends

Xtabay: Jungle Witch of the Maya

An interesting missing persons report exists in the files of the Komchén Police Station in the city of Mérida, capital of the Mexican state of Yucatán.  The event took place in the early 1990s just outside of town and involved a 55-year-old man named Isidro Kantún.  Normally home by 7:00 pm, one day Don Isidro did not come home from work.  Since her husband didn’t hang out after work and drink with his friends like other men, nor was he ever late, Isidro’s wife became worried rather quickly.  Nearly midnight, she left with her children and relatives to form an informal search party to look for Isidro.  They started at the bus stop about a kilometer from their house, a pick-up and drop-off point for Isidro, for the bus that took him to and from work in Mérida.  Isidro’s family went door to door asking people who lived near the bus stop if they had seen their beloved patriarch.  No one knew anything and there was no sign of Don Isidro.  In the morning several family members went to Mérida.  After visiting the hospitals and the local Red Cross, they reported Isidro as a missing person to the police.  Some family members searched a lonely stretch of the Progreso-Mérida Highway but came up with nothing.  By the third day some 100 people over an area of several hundred kilometers were involved in the search.  On the fifth day of Isidro’s disappearance, some young people walking along the road near Isidro’s bus stop saw an emaciated and distressed man sitting on a large rock.  The young people recognized him because they would see this same man sitting on the rock every day to wait for his ride into the city:  it was the missing Isidro.  They immediately called the police and the local village clinic because Isidro seemed very dehydrated and it appeared as if he hadn’t eaten in several days.  When Isidro tried to stand up he was so weak he almost fainted.  After Isidro received the immediate treatment he needed in the hospital, his family arrived.  He told the tale of what happened.  He walked from his house to the bus stop and sat on the rock underneath the ceiba tree as he did every weekday morning.  While sitting there, in broad daylight and under normal weather conditions, Isidro heard a voice coming from the jungle.  It was a soft, feminine voice that seemed to sing his name.  When he turned around, he saw a beautiful woman with long black hair dressed in white.  She smiled at him and asked him to follow her into the mountains.  That was the last thing Isidro remembered.  He woke up on the rock by the bus stop 5 days later with no recollection of what had happened during those missing 5 days.  Old timers in the area who heard the story rolled their eyes and wondered why Isidro, alone on the edge of the jungle, did not carry with him seeds of the anise plant.  Once the female apparition appeared to him, he could have sniffed the seeds in order to snap himself out of the woman’s trance.  The old timers knew what had happened:  Isidro had encountered a Xtabay.

Anthropologists and folklorists debate how far back the story of the Xtabay reaches into time.  Some claim it is a post-colonial invention going back only a few hundred years.  Others say that the legend of the jungle witch predates even the height of the classic civilization of the ancient Maya.  Like many legends and folk tales there are slight variations to this story.  The name Xtabay probably comes from the name of a minor ancient Maya goddess called Ix Tab who was the patroness of hunting by use of traps and snares.  She is depicted as a woman wearing a hangman’s noose.  Some anthropologists also believe that Ix Tab was the goddess of suicide, specifically, death by hanging.  The ancient Maya considered suicide a noble act and Ix Tab was there to escort those who committed suicide through to the afterlife.  From the writings of Diego de Landa, the famous Spanish colonial cleric responsible for the massive destruction of Maya artifacts including the famous bonfire of ancient Maya books (see ), the Bishop states:

“They said also and held it as absolutely certain that those who hanged themselves went to this heaven of theirs; and on this account, there were many persons who on slight occasions of sorrows, troubles or sickness, hanged themselves in order to escape these things and to go and rest in their heaven, where they said that the goddess of the gallows, whom they called Ix Tab, would bring them.”

It is possible that sometime during the colonial period or perhaps even before that time, the ancient Maya goddess of Ix Tab had somehow morphed into a jungle demon who entraps or snares men.  In a 1998 book by Mexican author Jesus Azcorra Alejos called Diez Leyendas Mayas, or in English, “Ten Maya Legends,” the writer describes the modern story of the Xtabay in great detail.  The legend starts off telling the tale of two women who lived in a small village in the Yucatán.  In some stories they are sisters, but in every version, they are both very beautiful.  Their names are Xkeban and Utz-colel.  Xkeban liked to flaunt her beauty and had the attention of many men, even from faraway villages.  The villagers admired Utz-colel for her virtue and purity.  Even though Xkeban did many good deeds for the poor and tended to sick animals and humans, the townsfolk could not see past her promiscuous behavior.  They derided her and belittled her, not valuing her for her kind heart.  At one point they wanted to banish Xkeban from the town, but villagers enjoyed tormenting her so much that they really didn’t want her to leave.  The beautiful young woman whom the town admired, Utz-colel, thought everyone inferior to her and unlike Xkeban, she was not helpful to others at all.  To the sick and hungry, and to all others in need, she turned a blind eye.  The townsfolk still admired Utz-colel, however, simply because she was chaste and did not frolic with strange men.  For about a week, Xkeban was missing, and the people in the village thought she had been away gallivanting with men in a neighboring town.  It was not until someone passed by Xkeban’s house and smelled a very strong sweet smell that the townsfolk became concerned.  When they entered her home to investigate, they found the body of Xkeban lying on a bed.  She was smiling and looked serene.  Surrounding the bed were beautiful flowers.  Several animals that Xkeban had helped nurse back from sickness were watching over the body.  The jealous Utz-colel said that the beautiful fragrance and the many flowers were simply a trick of the devil who was trying to fool them into thinking that Xkeban was something special.  The many needy people Xkeban helped had a funeral for her.  After they buried her, mysterious flowers sprouted up near her grave.  The wind carried the scent throughout the countryside.  Utz-colel became jealous of all the attention and declared that once she died that there would be more flowers and her body would smell nicer than Xkeban’s because throughout her life she remained celibate.  When the time came and Utz-colel died, never knowing a man and chaste to the end, to the surprise of everyone, she smelled terrible and no flowers sprouted near her.  The town had a funeral for the old maid Utz-colel with many flowers surrounding her grave, place there by the villagers.  The day after the ceremony all the flowers were dead and the horrible stench returned.   In death both women were transformed into flowers.  The kind-hearted Xkeban became a sweet-smelling flower called a Xtabentun by the Maya, a type of morning glory known in English as a Christmasvine or snakeplant.  The bitter and jealous Utz-colel became a stinking cactus flower called a Tzacam.  Unhappy with her fate after death, Utz-colel called upon the evil spirits of the jungle to transform her back into a woman.  Utz-colel thought that perhaps the reason why she turned into a smelly flower after death was because that during life she did not know the love of many men like Xkeban did.  As a new woman Utz-colel would have a second chance, but as she was inexperienced in the art of love she did not know how to win the affections of a man.  Only by tricking and trapping men could she experience love.  So now Utz-colel roams the forests and the back roads of the Yucatán preying on unsuspecting men and has earned the nickname of Xtabay.

The Xtabay lurks around at night, not only in the forested or rural areas, but sometimes in the cities looking for drunk men.  In some cases, like that of Isidro Kantún, she can appear in broad daylight only if no one else is around for quite a distance.  She wears all white, sometimes including a veil, and her long black hair drapes down past her shoulders.  While storytellers and eyewitnesses consider the Xtabay to be very beautiful, she has menacing black eyes when angry.  She usually hides behind a ceiba tree, which the Maya have always considered sacred and a sort of link between the heavens and the underworld, and life and death.  The Xtabay will lure the man with her beautiful voice much like a siren and will promise the man love.  In some versions of the story after the Xtabay has her way with a man she turns into a snake and devours him.  In other versions, she throws her victim over a cliff or will eat the man’s heart after she is through with him.   The Xtabay is often compared to the legend of La Llorona, but instead of snatching children from the sides of rivers and ditches, the Xtabay targets grown men.  For more about the Llorona, please see Mexico Unexplained episode number two.  Both the Llorona and the Xtabay stories serve as cautionary tales.  While parents tell the Llorona story to scare children away from playing near running water, the Xtabay story cautions men not to stray too far from the home.  A night out drinking or thoughts of straying outside marriage may cause an errant man to cross paths with the Xtabay which would result in perilous consequences.

As with most myths and legends, many people wonder if the story of the Xtabay could be based on a real demonic female entity living in the jungle, or something else entirely.  There are police reports, such as the one filed on behalf of Isidro Kantún, and other eyewitness testimonies, which tell of real-life encounters with something that fits the Xtabay description.  People have been having similar sightings for quite some time throughout the Yucatán.  An octogenarian from the town of Ticul, a man named Victor Mata, claims to have seen the Xtabay several times, and each time has defeated her hypnotizing song by smelling the anise seeds.  While interesting, Señor Mata’s testimony is not given much credence by serious researchers who demand photographs and physical evidence.  In today’s world where the standard of proof is so high, perhaps the Xtabay will never be confirmed as a real phenomenon.  For now, she lurks in the jungles of the Yucatán, and perhaps in the imagination, standing behind the ceiba tree, hoping for her next victim.


Diez Leyendas Mayas by Jesus Azcorra Alejos.

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