One of the most intriguing characters in Mayan folklore is the Xtabay, a lovely temptress who ensnares men and leads them to their doom, a prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold or the vengeful spirit of a cold-hearted woman, depending on the story or the story teller. There are many versions of the Xtabay legend, some clearly influenced by the Christian values introduced by Colonial friars, others embellished by later writers. Here are three of the most popular versions.
With dread, chicle harvesters, hunters and farmers tell stories of a slim and beautiful woman dressed in white who appears at night combing her long hair and sitting next to a young green ceiba, the Mayan sacred tree. She lures unwary men deeper into the forest and bewitches them. Once they are completely lost and have forgotten their families and everything they ever knew, she shows herself in her true colors as a snake-like demon, a daughter of Ceibam. She sends her victims mad or kills them on the spot with savage blows, bites and scratches, tearing their chests open. Others are dragged off to hell, never to be seen again.
Young Ceiba tree
In some Mayan communities in Quintana Roo, the inhabitants believe that the Xtabay is actually the guardian of morals rather than a mysterious siren, who mercilessly punishes drunkards, thieves and those who commit violent crimes.
Another version paints a much more forgiving picture of the Xtabay. The story goes that two very different women lived in a village. The first woman, Xkeban (prostitute or loose woman in Maya), was always in and out of love. The villagers said that love and passion were her sickness and that she gave herself to every man that strayed across her path. Her real name was Xtabay. The second woman, who was the darling of the village, lived near her in a neat little house. Her name was Utz-Colel, which means good, clean and decent woman, and she was virtuous and honest.
Despite her reputation, the Xtabay was as good-hearted as she was beautiful. She was generous to the poor and to those in need, cared for animals that had been abandoned and even traveled to distant villages to help the sick.
In contrast, the garments of Utz-Colel hid a terrible secret: the scaly skin of a snake; she was cold and proud, a hard-hearted woman who never helped the sick and despised the poor.
Several days passed and no one saw the Xkeban come out of her house. The villagers assumed that she had gone off on a spree to the villages and thought no more of it until the scent of flowers began to spread through the community, an intoxicating and seductive fragrance that led them to the home of the Xkeban. They went inside and found her lying there dead, alone and forgotten by all.
When Utz-Colel learned what had happened, she exclaimed that there was no way that such a heavenly perfume could have come from the Xkeban’s corrupt body. She said that it must have been the work of evil spirits leading men on. She assured the villagers that when she died, the fragrance would be even more delightful.
Out of pity, the villagers buried the Xkeban and the next day her grave was covered with a beautiful and sweet-smelling flower previously unknown in the Mayab. There were so many flowers that it looked like a heavenly cascade.
Utz-Colel died shortly after and the entire village turned out for her funeral. The grief-stricken mourners extolled her virtues, saying that she was pure-hearted and had died a virgin. Contrary to Utz-Colel’s claims about her perfume, she was not long in the grave when a foul stench began to creep from the earth.
Mayan storytellers declare that the flower that sprang from the grave of the sinner Xkeban was none other than Xtabentun, a wild flower that grows in hedges, along paths and in henequen fields that is used to make the liqueur of the same name. Utz-Colel’s soul was trapped for all eternity in a spiny cactus with a unpleasant smelling flower called the tzacam.
In this version of the tale, it is not the Xtabay that leads men to their doom in the shade of the ceiba, it is the evil spirit of hard-hearted Utz-Colel, who seduces them with soft words but is as incapable of love now as she was when she was alive.