Legends and myths of Mexico

Mexico’s most emblematic stories

Legends and myths of Mexico

Legends and myths that arise from certain cultures can tell you a lot about what they fear, what they love, and who they are. Folklore is one of the most important parts of Mexican culture.

Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl

In central Mexico stand two of the tallest mountains in North America, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. Their names come from one of the country’s most well-known legends, as Popocatepetl was an Aztec warrior, while Iztaccihuatl was one of the chief's daughters. Before heading off to war, Popocatepetl asked for Iztaccihuatl’s hand in marriage. The chief agreed, as long as he returned triumphant from the war. While he was gone, a jealous man who was also in love with Iztaccihuatl falsely claimed that Popocatepetl had died. Izta, in a miserable state, killed herself. When Popo returned victorious soon after, he found out that his loved one was dead. Overcome with grief, he joined ten mountains together and carried her up and lay her down, he lit a torch and stayed with her until his death. The gods then decided to make them into mountains, so they could be together forever. Iztaccihuatl is known as the ‘sleeping woman,’ forever resting her head on her lover’s lap.  

Doll Island

In Xochimilco, there is an island where Don Julian Santana Barrera lived. Legend says that the body of a little girl was washed up ashore, after which Don Julian started experiencing supernatural experiences. He would hear a child crying, screaming for help. To try and appease the haunting, Don Julian began hanging dolls up, creating offerings and altars. The hauntings would never stop, but people close to the island considered him a drunk and never took him seriously. Don Julian later died in the same place that the little girl had drowned. The island has now been taken over by Don Julian’s nephew, but people are no longer allowed to visit. It is a sight to behold.

El Coco

The legend of “El Coco” is a typical bedtime story told in Mexico, where parents would literally scare their children to sleep. It comes in the form of a song warning children that if they don’t go to sleep, el Coco would come and eat them. 

Duérmete niño

Duérmete ya

Que viene el coco

Y te llevará.

Duérmete niño

Duérmete ya

Que viene el coco

Y te comerá.

The story is ingrained in the memories of every Mexican child. There are many versions that describe el Coco as one thing or another, but the general consensus is that it is a figure with a hollowed out pumpkin as a head. 

The founding of Tenochtitlan

While many people know that Mexico City was built on top of a lake, not many know why. Around the seventh century, the Aztec people lived in Aztlan in the north of Mexico, but left on the orders of Huitzilopochtli, their main deity. He instructed his people to search until they found a very specific sign: an eagle perched on a nopal (prickly pear) devouring a snake. Once they found this sign, they would be able to build their new city. Huitzilopochtli had promised a fertile and bountiful land. And, just as he predicted, the Aztec Empire flourished and became one of the most powerful Mesoamerican civilizations of its time. The image of the eagle eating a snake on a nopal is the coat of arms of Mexico, and is represented in the middle of its national flag.

Cempasuchil flower

The legend of how this emblematic flower came to be is a beautiful, but tragic Aztec love story. It’s little wonder that it is the most important flower during the Day of the Dead. The story tells of Xochitl and Huizilin, two children who would always play together in the fields. As they grew older, they fell in love. They would take flowers up the mountain as an offering to Tonatiuh, the god of the sun, for him to bless their love. Once Huizilin came of age, he was called to war and was mortally wounded. Xochitl, overcome with grief ran up the mountain to plead with the god Tonatiuh to reunite her with Huizilin. Moved by their love, he turned Xochitl into a flower that remained closed until a hummingbird flew over it. The flower then blossomed into a beautiful yellow, with a wonderful smell. This way, their love would live through cempasuchiles (Mexican marigold) and hummingbirds forever. 

Owing to their tragic backstory and strong smell, cempasuchiles are used during the Day of the Dead celebrations to guide spirits to their altars and their families that await them. 

La Llorona

“La Llorona” is one of the most popular legends in Mexico. There are many versions of the story, but the most famous one goes as follows. La Llorona was an indigenous lower-class woman with whom a wealthy Spanish man had an affair. They had three children, but even though she constantly pleaded with him to marry her, he could not because of his social status. Soon after, he married a wealthy Spanish woman. La Llorona, heartbroken and wanting to hurt him, took her three children to bathe in a nearby river. There, she drowned her children. Realizing what she had done, and overwhelmed by guilt, she killed herself. Since then, she can be heard calling out for her children, crying, and screaming, “ay, mis hijos” (oh, my children).This story is told so children do not go out at night alone, unless they want to be taken by la Llorona as a replacement for her own lost children.

Further reading

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