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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Ghost of a Woman

My Beautiful Belize

On this Halloween, commentator Scott Thybony brings us the legend of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman. Stories of her suffering have been told for generations across Latin America and the Southwest. In his latest Canyon Commentary, Scott tells the story Grand Canyon-style. 

If you happen to be out at night and hear the heart-wrenching cry of a woman, it may simply be the ghost of a mother searching for the children she has murdered.  A worker at Phantom Ranch swore she heard the wailing of someone in great distress more than once along Bright Angel Creek in the Grand Canyon.  And a ranger on the North Rim tried to find the source of the sobbing cries he heard, thinking a woman had been badly injured.  He turned up nothing.  When I suggested it might have been a mountain lion he dismissed the possibility, insisting it was a human voice.

Many in the American Southwest know her as La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, and tales of her suffering have been told for generations.  The basic story goes like this:  A young hidalgo fell in love with a beautiful woman from a poor family.  She bore two of his children whom he loved deeply.  Then one day, under pressure from his parents, he broke the news.  He had to leave her forever and marry a woman of his own social standing.  Enraged by the betrayal, she drowned her sons in the river to get even, wanting to inflict the most pain by targeting the most innocent.  Overcome with grief and remorse for what she had done the mother then drowned herself, and now her ghost searches endlessly for the boys she had murdered.  Those who have seen the apparition say she dresses all in black with long fingernails reflecting the moonlight and a face as pale and blank as the full moon.

The story of love betrayed lies deeply embedded in the human condition, and its expression in literature goes back to the ancient Greeks.  In the Medea, Euripides recounts the tragedy of a mother who murders her sons to avenge her husband’s leaving her for another woman.  Despite variations across great spans of time and distance, the pattern holds.  A passion for vengeance turns wildly destructive, breaking even the most fundamental bonds between a mother and her children.

Recently I was traveling on a back road south of Winslow with Randy Hummel, a knowledgeable source of local history.  He related a chilling account of a New Mexico woman who married an Arizona rancher.  They had lived along Chevelon Creek not far from where he grew up.  When she discovered her husband was cheating on her, she turned on her three sons in a furious rage and castrated them.  The boys were taken in by other families, and old-timers remember their unchanged voices years later. 

So if you hear a wailing cry at night, it may be the Weeping Woman who wanders endlessly calling out for her children.  The anguish and deep sorrow expressed comes from someone who loved so deeply her passion turned on itself in a final, destructive act.  On the other hand, you may agree with a skeptical naturalist.  “It’s a badger,” he told me, “the mating call of a badger.”

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.
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