April 23, 2018
San Ignacio, Belize
We’re loving it here in Belize. The landscape is breathtaking, the wildlife is awesome, the climate is perfect, the people are hospitable and friendly, and their children are polite, well-behaved and respectful. In fact, the Belizean kids, that we’ve seen, actually pay attention and mind their parents and adults. Hmm. Having been a teacher many years ago, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s not like this everywhere. Upon asking around as to why this is so, I’ve discovered a treasure trove of Belizean tales and folklore that make the Grimm brothers look like Mr. Rogers. With bedtime stories like the ones I’ve heard, no wonder the children around here are such darlings, they are scared not to be!
One of the most popular tales told, to even tiny children, is about a troll-like character called Tata Duende. He is creepy, tricky and downright scary, so be afraid, very afraid. In fact, you might not want to continue this discourse alone, especially on a dark and stormy night. But, if you are brave and have mustered up your “big kid” courage, settle back and read on.
In Mayan, tata means “grandfather” or “old man,” and duende is the Spanish word for “goblin.” The Tata Duende is characterized as a short man (about 3 feet tall) with an ugly face. He wears a large red hat and sometimes animal skins. Often he carries a knotted stick or a machete. The two most distinguishing features about this Duende dude is that he has no thumbs and his feet face backwards, making him impossible to track. His backward feet are large and his toes are splayed out. He also doesn’t have knees, making his movements awkward.
He loves to lure errant children into the forest and they are never heard from again. He also loves to wreak havoc in the jungles of Belize, as well as, farms and even households. Often when a crop fails, it’s blamed on Tata Duende. And, being a trickster, he enjoys braiding horse manes, as well as, little girls’ hair.
Many stories describe this goblin as a lover and protector of forest animals. He often feeds and takes care of animals and even lost people. If you are hunting in the woods for animals to eat, well, the Tata Duende will probably leave you alone. But if you are killing or hurting animals for fun, watch out!
The goblin is usually spotted when it rains and often during the season of Lent, specifically Good Friday. Just about all encounters with him are at night. The Tata Duende loves to trick folks with his whistle. If you hear a whistle in the jungle that is really loud, like right next to you, don’t be scared. That means that he is far away. However, if you hear a distant whistle, beware. That means the joker is nearby.
The Garifuna people, in Southern Belize, claim that Tata Duende also guards hidden treasures. Treasure seekers can meet with him by carving a message in pine wood requesting a powwow. Generally he only holds audience at noon and the would-be treasure seeker must bring a white rooster and a white sheet on which to make the offering. To motivate him further, one can promise the Duende their first born child as part of the deal.
Because the Duende has no thumbs he tries to steal the thumbs of everyone he meets, usually by biting them off. The only way to keep your thumbs is to hide them in the palms of your hands the minute you see him. If you are quick enough, he might just take a liking to you and welcome you as one of his. And, if he really likes you, he might offer you one of his cigars and teach you to play his silver guitar or any other instrument you want to learn.
But don’t make him mad. The Duende has the power to make anyone who sees him paralyzed and speechless, often followed by days of fever and eventual insanity. He also gets ticked off when someone tries to imitate his whistle. Many hunters will not go into the jungle on Fridays, because it’s thought that if he sees them carrying a gun or shovel, he will chop off their heads and use them to decorate his home. So, the next time you hear a whistle in the jungle, we’d suggest hiding your thumbs and VAMOOSE!
Perhaps the scariest thing about Tata Duende is that he can live just about anywhere. Like in the forest, under rocks, in caves and in the walls of your house! EEEEK!!! He can also change himself into a small animal or even someone you know. Double EEEEK!!!
The stories of Tata Duende are so much part of the rich Belizean folklore culture that in 1991 a postage stamp was created in his honor. It’s displayed in the Museum of Belize in Belize City. The television series Destination Truth did an investigative episode on the creature, during their fifth season, only to conclude that the Tata Duende sightings were probably just the indigenous spider monkeys of Belize.
But we are convinced that he really does exist and see evidence to prove it just about every day. Like, whenever John and I lose our keys, the car won’t start or we do something really stupid, like get lost, we blame it on Tata Duende. Whenever we see a short, older man out walking along the highway we always check his thumbs, because he could be Tata Duende. Or whenever we see a horse with a funky looking mane we know it’s most likely the handiwork of Tata Duende. And, most importantly, whenever we see Belizean children behaving really well, like in a store, we smile, in awe of their parents, nod our heads at each other and say, “Definitely, Tata Duende!”