It is impossible to keep track of all of the legendary monsters, cryptids, creatures, folkloric beasts, mythical hybrids and other beings which have existed in the stories and minds of humans throughout recorded history. One name popped up recently on a reddit post that this writer had never seen before and a quick search found that it is an interesting shapeshifting legend of Central America that deserves some digital ink and its 15 minutes of fame. That creature is the Siguanaba, a shapeshifter whose most preferred shape is that of a shapely woman whose long hair hides her horse head.
One reason it is surprising La Siguanaba is not more well known is that she shows up in the folklore of so many different cultures – she is La Siguanaba in El Salvador, Spain, Guatemala, and Mexico; La Sucia or La Cigua in Honduras; Cegua in Costa Rica and Nicaragua; and Empollerada Woman in Panama. Each is a variation of a tale of a young woman betrayed by a lover who has a tragic death and returns as a shape-shifting temptress who lures men with her beauty – only to reveal her horse head or face before leading them to their own demise.
“The story goes that La Sucia was a very pretty girl who lived with her parents, whom she always helped with housework, including washing clothes in the river. When the girl was 15 years old, a hard-working young man from a good family fell in love with her and soon went to ask for the girl’s hand. Her parents immediately accepted as they knew he was the best match for her daughter and they agreed on the date of her marriage. On the wedding day, while the bride and groom were at the altar, the Priest asked them to deliver their baptismal certificate, a requirement that she could not fulfill because she was not baptized. Given the breach of this requirement, the priest refused to carry out the marriage, this despite the pleas of the relatives who requested that he baptize her and then marry her in the same act.”
In the Honduran version, La Sucia’s groom leaves her and marries another woman, while she loses her mind and wanders aimlessly in her dirty and tattered wedding dress until she dies and returns as a beautiful spirit who lures drunk men to a river, then transforms into the horse-headed horror and drowns them or drives them insane.
Salvadorans tell a slightly different tale of Sihuehuet (beautiful woman), who started out as a peasant woman who used an evil spell to lure the god Tlaloc’s son, Yeisun, into marriage. When he went off to war, she cheated on him and had a child who she neglected. To get out of the marriage, she used another spell to turn Yeisun into a two-headed monster. When the palace guards killed him, Tlaloc discovered it was his son and had Sihuehuet turned into Sihuanaba (“hideous woman”) who was beautiful while she lured drunken lonely men to isolated areas, then turned into the hideous horse-headed creature to kill them.
In Guatemala, La Siguanaba starts out as a beautiful woman who washes her long golden hair in a golden bowl and combs it with a golden comb. She often appears bathing in a river (never a good sight if you are a drunk man looking to cheat on your wife or girlfriend) – in this variation, Siguanaba lures the men to a the local garbage dump where she either turns into a creature with the face of a horse or an ugly woman with enormous glowing eyes and a hoof for a hand.
In Mexico, La Siguanaba has as many forms as she has names – she is also called Macihuatli, Matlazihua, X’tabay or X’tabal, and her face and head can be that of a horse, a dog, a pig, an old woman, a skull, a horribly disfigured person, a horse’s skull, or the rotted head of a dead and decaying horse. No matter what she eventually shifts into, the Mexican La Siguanaba always starts out as a beautiful woman who appears on lonely roads to partiers, womanizers, and drunks who eventually see her real face and either give up drinking, swear to be faithful, all of the above, or end up dead or insane. La Siguanaba is never satisfied and, even if she kills the cheater, she abandons him for the next wayward guy because the luring and the scaring is always more fun than the end result. And as always, it seems that men will never learn.
Being a man tricked by La Siguanaba is especially dangerous in Nicaragua, where she is also known as the Cegua, Ceguanaba or Ceguanagua. There, Cegua was betrayed by her partner so she makes a deal with the devil and learns how to turn her entire body into a horse with a skeletal face who generally lets adulterers live, but with a bite mark or scar on their face, or a fright that leaves a scar in their mind – leading to a popular Nicaraguan saying (among women, at least): “It is played by Cegua.” One version of the story has there being a pack of ceguas who work together to hunt down cheaters and drunks. These are definitely more interesting than the usual folk takes of the spirit being that of an old woman.
That is definitely the case in Panama, where La Siguanaba is called the Empollerada Woman – another woman who committed suicide because her lover was unfaithful to her – who goes after traveling men away from home and looking for attention. She convinces them to take her for a ride in their cars, where she transforms into a specter with a skull for a face.
Other than the shape-shifting and the horse head or face, there is one other thing in common in all of these stories – cheating husbands or lovers. Women are obviously superior when it comes to creating scary legends to punish or warn these guys, while men are nowhere near as clever at coming up with ways to avoid La Siguanaba – other than being faithful, of course. The traditional defense is to make the sign of the cross on La Siguanaba, which requires getting closer to her than most would like. If she is armed with a machete, the remedy is to bite the machete – a pretty dangerous move.
Why is the La Siguanaba such a predominant creature in Central America and not in other places? Are men there more prone to cheating? Are women more vengeful? Are folklorists more creative? Whatever the case, add La Siguanaba to your list of legendary monsters, cryptids, creatures, folkloric beasts, mythical hybrids and shapeshifters of the world.
And don’t cheat!