The Xtabay: From Forest Guardian to Hungry Demon
Beware. When you walk alone along the road in the moonlight and under the stars, the east wind will breathe on you and make you feel as though you are flowering like a tree in the rain. Then you will be young as if you had youth three times over, and the Xtabay, who has been watching you, will show herself to you.
2. The Xtabay by Antonio Mediz Bolío, Translated
3. Other Versions of the Xtabay Story
The Problem of Ixtab and Her Rope
They also said, and held it quite certain, that those who had hung themselves went to this paradise; and there were many who in times of lesser troubles, labors or sickness, hung themselves to escape and to go that paradise, to which they were thought to be carried by the goddess of the scaffold whom they called Ixtab.
the ancient Maya believed that suicides went directly to Paradise. There was a special goddess who was the patroness of those who had taken their lives by hanging—Ixtab, Goddess of Suicide. She is shown in the Codex Dresdensis hanging from the sky by a halter which is looped around her neck; her eyes are closed in death, and a black circle, representing decomposition, appears on her cheek.
Do not go into the jungle alone.Ay, cuidado! Her nest of bone!
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dry-, Gk., drys, gen. sg. dryos: the oak, sacred to Zeus. In A Grammatical Dictionary of Botanical Latin. Available online: http://www.mobot.org/mobot/latindict/keyDetail.aspx?keyWord=dry (accessed on 11 May 2022). [Dryos “oak” from PIE *dero “tree,” especially oak.]
It is difficult to describe the semi-sound that is pronounced before the s-h sound of the X. William Gates (de Landa and Gates  2011, p. 170) calls it by the technical term “glottal stop,” which is close. Simply separating the sh sound from the following t with the spelling X’tabay will achieve it pretty well, almost like ish-tabay but lighter on the i preceding the sh. The popular spelling Xtabay will be used here, with the acknowledgment that others spell the name more accurately as X’tabay.
The Llorona also acquired an origin tale to explain her weeping, but it has become integrated into her legend, whereas the Xtabay’s two-woman origin tale is incompatible with her botanical associations, as will be seen. Deforestation may have been a component in that story’s separation of the Xtabay from her original association with the ceiba tree.
Like many literary figures of Latin America, Mediz Bolio was also an educator and a politician, at one time serving as a senator of the Mexican Republic. As a widely published writer he produced poetry, essays and plays (including opera and movie scripts), but his literary and political influence transcended all of these individual professions and accomplishments.
This version of “Barbara Allen” was made famous by Joan Baez. There is no flower motif in the three versions that Francis James Child (1882) collected (“Barbara Allen” is Child #85), but the motif occurs in other traditional ballads in his collection (e.g., “Lord Loval,” Child #75), and it is attached to “Barbara Allen” in several of the twenty versions in (Bronson 1976). The motif may have been added in order to wrap up the harsh story in a pleasant, though not quite justified, manner.
The seeds of the xtabentún plant contain an ergoline alkaloid similar in structure to LSD. In the 1950s the CIA investigated the psychedelic properties of a number of plants including this one as part of its MKUltra Subproject 22, a covert search for chemicals facilitating mind-control. John Marks (1979) offers a popular account of this search for hallucinogenic plants like xtabatún (see especially pp. 106–107).
For the Xtabay Vintage Clothing Boutique (nothing to do with Mayan culture) see https://shopxtabay.com/collections/vendors?q=Xtabay%20Vintage%20Clothing%20Boutique (accessed on 22 July 2022).
Trilingual: Short Maya narrative about Xtabay, learn Yucatec Maya, Yucatan Mexico. YouTube video, posted by NP4Mayans, 9 January 2015. Available online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNZwoiY_n9s (accessed on 11 May 2022). On this educational language video the Mayan text is provided below the video, followed by translations into Spanish and English.
The IMDb (Internet Movie Database) lists the following films associated with Mediz Bolio: Judas; screenplay (Mediz Bolio 1936), Viaje al surest; screenplay (Sandoval 1936), Mi madrecita; screenplay (Elías 1940), El amor de los amores; director (Mediz Bolio 1944), La selva de fuego; screenplay (Davison 1945), and Tragic Jungle (Olaizola 2020).
The Dresden Codex, so named because it is archived in the Saxon State Library in Dresden, is one of the oldest Mayan manuscripts extant and the most complete, dating to early medieval times and referring to an even older text. (The burning of ancient Mayan codices in the name of the Church in the sixteenth century reduced a great wealth of these precious manuscripts to a pitiful few). The focus of the Dresden Codex upon astronomical data, and on eclipses in the section where the Rope Woman figure is found, suggests her association with the moon.
Although what Landa recorded in the Relaciones provides much of what we know about the ancient Maya, inestimately more was lost in the vast quantity of original Mayan manuscripts that Landa ordered to be burnt because of their “demonic” content. Moreover, his treatment of the Indians under his authority was so harsh and even illegal that he was sent to Spain for trial, and it was then that he wrote the Relaciones, mainly in order to exculpate himself. See William Gates’ introduction to Landa 2011 for an account of Landa’s crimes against the native Mayans, especially pp. 12–13, but also in footnotes on pp. 42 and 46 and passim (de Landa and Gates  2011). (Gates was criticized for including such attention to political acts in his translation.).
This is an extraordinary example of what Mary Louise Pratt calls “autoethnography,” where a native culture adopts as its own a story or attribute imposed on them by non-native scholars. To express this in Pratt’s own words with more nuance: “Guaman Poma’s New Chronicle is an instance of what I have proposed to call an autoethnographic text, by which I mean a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them. Thus if ethnographic texts are those in which European metropolitan subjects represent to themselves their others (usually their conquered others), autoethnographic texts are representations that the so-defined others construct in response to or in dialogue with those texts” (Pratt 1991, p. 35). This construct involves “a selective collaboration with and appropriation of idioms of the metropolis or the conqueror” (Pratt 1991, p. 35).
Because the forest was a designated male space, hunting was construed as a male province (see Taube 2003, p. 485).
Constructing a snare is simple with components readily available in nature, and it need not even involve a lure if the trap is set carefully in the prey’s accustomed path. “The Snare Shop” sells such equipment online. Snaring is an exceptionally cruel form of hunting that can trap an unintended form of prey (for example, a lost dog or cat).
Currently La Llorona reimagined serves as an inspirational figure in Chicana literature. According to Domino Renee Perez, “La Virgen, La Malinche, and La Llorona have become—whether through our acceptance, rejection, or reworking of their stories—central to the formation of Chicana feminist thought” (Perez 2008, p. 44).
For a theoretically informed discussion of the Xtabay, see (Manzanilla 2019). The abstract of his dissertation begins, “This study addresses aspects of monstrosity from a transdisciplinary and comprehensive perspective that combines postcolonial, postmodern, queer, and overall, postfeminist studies in a realm of Latin American Cultural Production.” His fourth chapter discusses the legend of the Xtabay and femicide, with a section introducing “The X’tabay” as a “palimpsest of female monstrosity,” and a later section arguing, with supportive reference to the theory of Ixtab as goddess of suicide and to IxChel as goddess of the moon (and more), that the Xtabay serves as a “foundational monster” (p. 183) and corresponds to the Great Mother archetype (p. 185). This interpretation of the Xtabay would work equally well if not better with Ixtab interpreted as goddess of the hunt together with IxChel as goddess of the moon (which would coincidentally match the two main identifiers of the equally multifaceted goddess Diana). The author’s incorporation of Bourdieu’s habitus theory as a way of being makes his argument especially interesting. His discussion has far more depth and nuance than is possible to convey in this brief note.
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Osborn, M. The Xtabay: From Forest Guardian to Hungry Demon. Humanities 2022, 11, 96. https://doi.org/10.3390/h11040096
Osborn M. The Xtabay: From Forest Guardian to Hungry Demon. Humanities. 2022; 11(4):96. https://doi.org/10.3390/h11040096Chicago/Turabian Style
Osborn, Marijane. 2022. "The Xtabay: From Forest Guardian to Hungry Demon" Humanities 11, no. 4: 96. https://doi.org/10.3390/h11040096