As Belizeans, we are very superstitious people, and so is the rest of the Caribbean. All areas of Mesoamerica have their own traditional folktales and legends, and within the Maya territory, there are numerous characters and stories. Xtabai is what many would consider to be the most malevolent of them all. The very mention of her name is enough to bring chills to someone’s entire body. The character is not fully understood, which brings even more mystery to its motives and is best described as a demon.

It was never alive. It was never a person that lived her life and after death failed to find her path to the afterlife. This is a demon that takes the form of a beautiful woman and manifests itself near the mouth of a cave at the base of the Ceiba tree, the sacred tree of the Ancient Maya. This woman is described having long beautiful hair, and wears a traditional white maya dress that is long enough to cover her feet. This entity appears only to men and may take the form of one’s wife or girlfriend, or simply someone that the man knows. Doing this puts the man into a spell. The man will try to catch up with her, but the entity will always be a few steps ahead. It will eventually lead the man to a cave, and if he enters, he will never be heard of again. The only way to break the spell is to look at her feet as she has giant bird feet that she tries to hide with her gown. Seeing that will snap the man out of the spell and he will be able to run away.

Maya women traditionally wear a huipil. They have been wearing this garment from before the Spanish arrival. It is worn by groups living in the Yucatan and Campeche states. The Maya living in highland Guatemala also wear their own traditional huipil.  The huipil worn today is a variation that incorporates design features from other Mexican regions, and even from Europe. In all stories of Xtabai, the white dress plays a main role, and so is the act of hiding her feet. There are many styles of huipils throughout Mesoamerica, but there is only one style that actually covers the feet and is worn by the Mestizo from Yucatan. We know that during the Castle War of 1840, many people fled Yucatan and came south, into Belize and Guatemala. There is a very high chance that then is when the folktales made it into this area. If that is so, then Xtabai is of Mestizo origin and the character is wearing a Yucatan huipil.

When the ancient Maya first accessed caves, they were afraid of going inside. Caving archaeologists find the oldest pots at the mouth of the cave and the newer pots are found deeper into it, giving us reason to believe that the Maya became braver as time progressed. They described the cave entrance as the entrance to the afterlife, a place of eternal rest and a place of fright. The Popul Vuh is a mythological story about two boys that descended into the underworld and described a place where many death gods reside. 

Xtabai is a mixture between Yucatec culture and ancient Maya belief. She is a demon that manifests itself in front of a cave, a place that also has connections with an evil underworld.  She appears at the base of a Ceiba tree, thus desecrating a sacred symbol and giving us an insight that this character has no respect for this world’s ideology and is altogether evil. 

2 thoughts on “Xtabai”
  1. Interesting read. We ourselves have a similar character. She is called La Diablesse.

    Translated as ‘female devil’ from French, La Diablesse . The legend comes from the Caribbean Folklore . She was born human but her deals with the devil made her become a demon .

    To others, her poise, figure and dress make her seem beautiful. However, her hideous face is hidden by a large brimmed hat and her long dress hides the fact that one leg ends in a cow hoof- also she walks with one foot on the road and her cow’s hoof in the grass at the side of the road.

    She can cast spells on her unsuspecting male victims whom she leads into the forest . When in the forest, she disappears and the man, confused, lost and scared, runs around the forest until he falls into a ravine or river and dies.

    1. Wow! Very interesting to know the similarities between these folklore personalities. We live, indeed, in a very small world.

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