La Ciguapa, The Dominican Succubus

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Ciguapa, drawing by Felix Rosario, c. 2016-2017

She lurks in the shadows of the deep forests and mountainous regions of the Dominican Republic. A fair maiden, small of height and bodice. Timid, with dark enchanting eyes and lustrous black hair that shines with the moon. Lonely men are lured by her soft chirps and whispers. Once caught in her stare, they are hypnotized and lead into her hidden cave to be devoured whole. Leaving no traces.

The legend of "La Ciguapa" is one of the most renowned of Dominican folklore. So popular, that many, especially in the rural areas of the country, still claim the tale as truth. The most popular (and terrifying) of the ciguapa storylines, describes a demon which lives in deep caves and lures lonely men with her beauty and sensuality -- though some will say that the ciguapa uses a hypnotic stare and magic to draw them in, eventually killing and eating the captive or trapping them forever.

But stories are also told which describes a timid creature which roams in the trees and feeds on birds, rodents and other small animals, as well as fruits and nuts — quickly disappearing if they sense anyone. But what has really made ciguapas such a popular myth is their most striking feature; backwards facing feet — a trait which helps to confuse anyone that pursues a ciguapa.

One of the earliest written accounts of the Ciguapa in the Dominican Republic, is a short story by Francisco Javier Angulo Guridi (1816 - 1884), a poet, novelist, essayist and playwright, born in the city Santo Domingo. Guridi published several works in 1866, among them "La Ciguapa." And it is Guridi’s description of the ciguapa which resonates in the stories told today.

Guridi describes the ciguapa as follows: "sleeping in the crowns of the cedars, and feeding on fish from rivers, birds and fruits. The Ciguapa, such is the name by which it is known, is a creature that rises only a rod in length: but do not think there is deformity in its proportions as the so-called dwarves in Europe and even in other parts of America. Far from it, there is an exact harmony in all her muscles and limbs, a great beauty in her face, and agility so full of spontaneity and grace that she leaves absorbed anyone that sees her movements. It has the golden skin of the true Indian, black almond shaped eyes, soft, lustrous and thick hair, which rolls down the female's beautiful back to the her calf."

Guridi, however, never mentions the backwards facing feet. This trait was likely added on as the tale was passed along throughout the years.

The Dominican Succubus

Throughout human history, stories of the Succubus; a female demon that takes human form and seduces men, have been told around the world. One origin of this legend (Succubus) has been traced by some to the story of Lilith, Adam's first wife (created from the earth just like Adam), in the Alphabet of Ben Sira.

Unlike Adam and Eve, Adam and Lilith were more like modern couples — always fighting and arguing. One issue which always resulted in a fight, was who would go on top during sex. Lilith wasn't the submissive perfect wife which Adam wanted — sometimes, she wanted to go cowboy.

"...She said, 'I will not lie below,' and he said, 'I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be in the superior one.'

Lilith responded, 'We are equal to each other in as much as we were both created from the earth.' But they would not listen to one another.

When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air."

God wasn't too happy when he learned about Lilith's actions and sent some angels after her to convince her to return to Adam. But Lilith was reluctant.

"'Leave me!' she said. 'I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for twenty days.'

"When the angels heard Lilith's words, they insisted she go back. But she swore to them by the name of the living and eternal God: 'Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an amulet, I will have no power over that infant.'  She also agreed to have one hundred of her children die every day. Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels' names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers."

We can easily see how this story of the rebellious first wife could have evolved into the folklore of a female demon hunting lonely men.

In Guridi's short story, ciguapas are jealous creatures, and when they encounter someone of the opposite sex they form a connection and together die. In the story, a young couple had gone down to the river to fetch some water and were spied by a male ciguapa. Three days after their encounter, the girl that had witnessed the ciguapa dies.

"Her jealousy ends with death... when it is the female ciguapa that surprises such, the male lover dies at the same time as the ciguapa, when it is a male ciguapa the female lover dies, as did my poor Marcelina."

Artwork depicting La Ciguapa by Dominican artists

Ciguapa, Dominigo Guaba
"La Gran Ciguapa"
Sculpture by Domingo Guaba. C. 2000-2004
Ciguapa, Jaime Colson
"Baquiní y la ciguapa del Camú"
Painting by Jaime Colson. C. 1949
Ciguapa, Felix Berroa
"Baile Forzado de la Ciguapa"
Painting by Felix Berroa. C. 2007
"La Poza de las Cigüapas"
Painting by Jose Levy. C. 2015

A Global Phenomenon

Similar stories of a Ciguapa or Succubus like creature are told in many countries throughout the world.

Some countries in Central America call it the Sihuanaba; a demon that can change forms at will — like the Ciguapa, the Sihuanaba is also known for its long hair and beauty.

Men unlucky enough to encounter a Sihuanaba, are lured into following a girl that only shows her back. When the Sihuanaba finally turns around, she reveals her face to be either a skull or the head of a horse.

In Venezuela, its La Sayona; "the vengeful spirit of a woman that shows up only to men that have love affairs out of their marriages."

Another variation of La Sayona is; La Llorona — this legend is prevalent throughout North and South America, but used to scare children that misbehave.

The story of "La Llorona" likely evolved from the Lamia, a child-eating demon of Greek Mythology.

If we take note of the recurring similarities such as reclusiveness, vengeance, striking features, sexual nature — only appearing when someone is alone, we can easily connect the dots and conclude that the Ciguapa, like the Succubus, Dracula and the Wolfman in other cultures, are childhood stories which Dominicans cannot allow to fade away.

The Backwards Feet

As was previously stated, the backwards facing feet are the Ciguapa's most notable feature. And so-far, the origin of this allure has not been covered.

In the stories, the backwards feet help Ciguapas in their elusiveness — as the tracks help lead away, instead of leading to the Ciguapas destination.

But Ciguapas are not the only creatures of folklore with backwards facing feet. In India, a tale is told about a ghost named Bhoot, which can take on human form and can only be recognized by its backwards facing feet.

Another legend of Indian origin is the Churel. There are many variations to the Churel story, however, just like the Ciguapa and the Bhoot, Churels also have backwards facing feet and prey on lonely men.

But there is a little bit of truth to the Ciguapa — backwards facing feet are a real condition.

"Wang Fang, 27, of Chongqing city in China, was born with backward facing feet, and Moses Lanham Jr. , known as the "Backwards Feet Man" and "Mr. Elastic," has the unique ability to rotate his feet behind him."

There is also the condition Genu recurvatum, "a deformity in the knee joint, so that the knee bends backwards. In this deformity, excessive extension occurs in the tibiofemoral joint. Genu recurvatum is also called knee hyperextension and back knee."

But regardless of your take on the legend of a feral woman with long hair and backwards feet, folklore or true, the Ciguapa is an important icon of Dominican culture. The stories of the latest man or woman to fall victim to the ciguapa will continue to capture the attention of those willing to listen.