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The legend of La Tulevieja, the woman-like creature wandering Panama’s and Costa Rica’s rivers

6 min read

Panama is probably most well known in the West for the world-famous Panama Canal, a man-made waterway that has granted passage from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean to over one million vessels since it opened in 1914.
However, it is also home to several stunning natural waterways that weave through the country’s soil. Costa Rica, its neighbor to the northwest, also boasts many beautiful rivers, streams, and lakes.
But if you find yourself in either of these parts of the world and see a strange figure walking along the banks of those wonderful rivers at night, it may be La Tulevieja.

La Tulevieja, sometimes also spelled Tulivieja, is a legend that originated in these two countries.
Her story combines the legends of La Segua (another character from Central American legends, a spectral being who materializes at night on lonely roads, asking for help to take her to a nearby town, that usually appears to womanizing men in the form of a very beautiful woman, which later transforms into a monster with the head of a horse), and the most popular La Llorona.
In most of her portraits, the Tulevieja is a hybrid of a woman and a hawk similar to a Harpy.
Like Llorona, she is said to wander the earth looking for her lost child, she responds to the cries of newborns and will feed any baby she might find from her breasts that are always lactating.
However, like the Segua, she seeks to punish lustful men. When a man is attracted to her charm and round breasts, they will meet a terrible end being shredded by the creature’s hawk-like claws.

In one of the most popular version of the legend, there was a girl who was very very beautiful, who had a secret relationship with a guy in her town from which she got pregnant and a little boy was born (or two, depending the version you heard).
Then she drowned the child (or the children) in the river to make up for her premarital relationship sin. After that, God punished her by making her the ugliest monster possible, literally making her face like a colador, a pasta strainer, where hair came out of the holes. With her hands turned into claws, and her feet turned backwards, she’s supposed to spend the rest of her life looking for her son in her river.
The legend is that she still hounds the river looking for her son and she will take her beautiful form while sitting by it. Any noise will bring out the ugly monster, though.
In other versions of the same story she drowns herself as well, or she is a short woman with a thick body, swollen breasts, sometimes leaking milk, and tangled hair.

La Tulevieja has been syncretized with La Llorona in some places, and in those versions of the legend she seeks out babies to feed her milk to, sometimes stealing them.
In other interpretations, she is an avenging spirit, punishing lustful men and irresponsible fathers, and the only way to escape her clutches is to recite a certain prayer.

In fact, many versions of the legend of Tulevieja are very similar to the story of La Llorona herself. However, the reason that she’s cursed is often different. In one version of the same story, La Tulevieja was once a beautiful woman who always wore a tule hat and had a penchant for partying. One night, she had a one-night stand with a man she would never see again and, eventually, became pregnant. Not wanting those in her village to find out about her extramarital sex, she fled to the woods and gave birth next to a river. Unwilling to bring the baby back into the village, she left it on her tule hat next to the river to starve to death.
Soon after, she began to regret her decision and decided to return to the river but, whe she arrived, the baby was gone and only her hat remained. So upset with herself, La Tulevieja committed suicide by flinging herself into the river.
La Tulevieja’s woes didn’t end there, though.
As punishment for her transgression against the child and for living a sinful life, God would not let her soul rest.
Instead, she was cursed to wander the rivers, her breasts swollen and full of milk, her face stained with tears, and her cries of sorrow audible from miles away, until she finds her baby.

In another version, La Tulevieja is not out to kidnap small children but to punish men who lead lecherous lifestyles. In this story, she also has exposed breasts, which she uses to lure adulterous or drunken men, who invites to caress her bare breasts as they dance. What they don’t know is that there is a hidden anthill between them. As La Tulevieja dances with the man, a group of leafcutter ants (also known as Sompopo ants) will come out of the anthill and anesthetize the man. Only once the man is anesthetized will he see her true form: a hideous beast with razor-sharp claws, a hideous face full of holes, bat wings, and inverted legs like a bird of prey. She then grasps her victim with her claws and flies him to another part of the woods to devour him.

In still another version of the legend, La Tulevieja is the ghost of an old woman that’s out for revenge against bratty children.
As the story goes, she was once an old woman who would always wear a tule hat to cover her deformed face. Apparently, she had a cold gaze, always dressed in black, and was most often seen carrying firewood.
As she carried it from place to place, the children who lived in her village would cruelly mock her deformities.
One day, one of the children who was mocking her stole her tule hat and threw it in a river. The woman chased after her hat, fell into the river, and drowned. As revenge for leading her to her death, the ghost of La Tulevieja roams around the rivers from village to village searching for children to devour.
The moral? Be nice to your elders!

In the tradition of the Ngäbe-Buglé, the largest of Panama’s indigenous groups, the woman is known as Tepesa.
The legend ties into the history of the tribe, takes place right around the time that the Spanish arrived in Panama, and It also hints at the resentment that the Ngäbe-Buglé people felt towards the Spanish conquistadors at that time.
In this version of the story, Tepesa was a beautiful Ngäbe-Buglé woman who was impregnated by a Spaniard who’d fallen in love with her. Not wanting her tribe to know of her relations with a Spaniard, she drowned her newborn son in a river.
As punishment, God cursed her to walk the rivers, crying and searching for a son she will never find.
The legend also says that the woman can regain her original form during a full moon and bathe in the waters of the river, finally getting a moment’s peace from her torturous existence. However, at the slightest noise, she will turn back into a monster and continue her search.

Either way the legend has its roots in Talamancan mythology, in Itsö, a spirit of mountains, wind, and rain, although the name can also be used generically to refer to any demon. Itsö demanded the right to eat the first human beings due to help he gave the god Sibú.
The name Tulevieja comes from the tule hat she wears, and in some versions of the story, the plant is a defense against her. Interestingly, “tule” can refer to several plants, including Schoenoplectus acutus, Taxodium mucronatum, and Pontederia.

Images from web – Google Research

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