The thrill of a ghost story is one of those human universals that we all have in common, from American suburbia to the heart of the Amazon rainforest and beyond. One of the best parts of traveling to Heifer projects is when the folks we meet around the world regale us with local ghost stories and legends. Here are a few of the tales we’ve heard that spooked us in remote locals around the world.
La Llorona, The Weeping Woman
Santa Ana del Rio, Mexico – In Mexico, generations of children hear their parents warn them not to wander alone, or they might run into La Llorona.
La Llorona, or The Weeping Woman, is a legend that dates back to at least the time of the conquistadors, but the story is still alive and well in Mexico. Although many versions of the story exist, most of them end with a beautiful, ghostly woman dressed in white, wailing as she roams rivers and streams searching for her lost children. Anyone who is unfortunate enough to see the tragic spirit risks meeting with a watery grave.
On occasion, La Llorona can be seen in Santa Ana del Rio, according to Herlinda Cruz, a local chicken farmer. “Here, many people say that they hear her,” Cruz said. “But not everyone hears her. She leaves from the church, they say, and she starts to cry all along the road, advancing. There are people who hear her, there are people who don’t.”
“Who knows who she is? But if someone is sick and about to die, someone might hear her as she passes by, and that week the person will die. As if she’s coming to take them.”
Aframase, Ghana – Ghana has a rich folklore tradition. One of the most common characters is Kwaku Ananse (sometimes shortened to Ananse or Anansi), the wise, trickster spider spirit. You may be familiar with Anansi through his most widely known American pop-culture appearance in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or the T.V. show based on the novel. Ananse is so prevalent in these tales that his name is in the word for folklore: anansesem, or spider stories. Here is one spider story we heard in the heart of Ghana:
Kwaku Anansi was the wisest being in the world. There are a lot of stories about the spider. He tried to gather all the wisdom in the whole world and keep it in his stomach, and that’s why spiders have very big stomachs. At one point Kwaku Anansi filled a pot with wisdom and knowledge and tried to haul it to the top of a tree so he could hide all the knowledge far out of reach. But the pot was heavy, and he struggled.
Kwaku Anansi’s son Ntekuma saw his father struggling and asked, “Look, you can’t climb with the pot in front of you. Why don’t you put the pot behind so it will be easy for you to climb?” Kwaku Anansi grew angry because he thought that he had all of the knowledge and wisdom in the whole world in the pot. But if his son was still able to teach him something, it meant there was still wisdom out there that he didn’t have. So Kwaku Anansi dropped the pot and the wisdom spilled everywhere. And that is how everybody has got some knowledge and some wisdom.
The Legend of the Man-Tiger
Primero de Mayo, Bolivia – Life in the rainforest is colored with glimmers of danger and flashes of magic. While I was visiting an açai project in Bolivia, one Heifer project participant told me this story of a mystical creature with a taste for fresh meat. While it is called a tiger in this story, the beast to which our storyteller refers is known in the United States as a jaguar.
We don't know that much of what's in the forest, but our ancestors say there's a small species of plant that people rub on their bodies, like a ritual, and then they do three somersaults backward. At the third one, when they land, they land as a tiger. And they say that the head of the person becomes the back part of the body of the tiger.
The man who became a man-tiger, every night he would go out and hunt, and every day he would have meat to eat. He always had meat. But then, he started to steal meat from the people in the village. He would take their pigs. And nobody could kill him because, since he was a man-tiger, he had the intelligence of a person. So he knew when people were waiting for him, and he knew where to hide. And the people in the community were afraid.
Finally one person said, "I'm going to catch him," and began to lay in wait for him one day after the next after the next. And that man was able to shoot him, but he shot him in the head and the tiger took off.
But who was the man-tiger? The person who shot it had a guess, so he sneaked into a man's house and he saw that the man had a rifle bullet in his backside. And then he knew the man was a man-tiger, and he came back with all the people in the town, and they said, "if you don't leave, we're going to burn you." And then the man-tiger had to leave that home and go to live somewhere else. And until today, there is still this species of men who turn into tigers.
Char Joknala, Bangladesh – The following story seems to be a Bangladeshi classic that has been passed down from generation to generation. Two Heifer project participants in different districts, Joly Begum and Khodeja Begum, shared versions of this gruesome tale with us.
One day, a landowner gave a poor, young cattle farmer a delicious pitha (a fried rice flour cake). Instead of eating it, though, the farmer planted it in the ground. The next morning, a tree grew and fruited pitha cakes.
The farmer shared the cakes with people in the community. One day, a stranger passed by and asked for some pitha. The farmer climbed the tree to harvest one, and he said, “I’ll throw it to you.” But the stranger said, “How about you hand it to me instead?”
The farmer obliged, and when he did, the stranger grabbed his arm and revealed himself to be a rakkhoshi, a demonic shape-shifter with sharp fangs and claws. “I will eat you,” the rakkhoshi said, putting the farmer in a sack. “This will be a very tasty treat.”
With the farmer still in tow, the rakkoshi returned home and asked his daughter-in-law to chop up the boy and cook him. “We’ll invite guests and enjoy a grand party.” Then he went to take a bath.
At that moment, the farmer got out of the bag and killed the monster’s daughter-in-law. Quickly, he put on her dress and got to cooking.
That evening, the farmer—dressed as the daughter-in-law—served the party, and no one suspected a thing. Later in the evening, the rakkhoshi noticed a beautiful water lily in a nearby pond and asked the disguised farmer to retrieve it. The farmer agreed, but when he neared the flower, he didn’t collect it.
Instead, he revealed himself, saying, “It’s not me you’ve eaten tonight,” and fled.