Author’s note: The legend of La Sayona contains some violent details.
Some legends go down in history. Others are forgotten. And only some, exceptional cases, live in a liminal space, known only to a few. Long ago I heard the story of La Sayona (which could translated as “The Sackcloth-Woman”), a specter that inhabits the Venezuelan plains and punishes unfaithful men. Her legend is one of these exceptions.
Although the story has many variations because it is part of the oral tradition of the region, there is one version in particular that I remember from childhood. In it, a woman lived happily married to her husband, a hard-working and honest man who had given her a son. The couple lived without any problem, since the man worked and the woman took care of the home, and both were content to carry their day to day like this.
On one occasion, however, a rumor reached the woman’s ears, stating that her husband had an affair with her mother. It was a rumor, nothing more and nothing less. When she arrived at her mother’s home, she found her husband asleep there, with a baby in his arms. Enraged, the woman killed her husband and mother, but before dying, her mother cursed her, condemning her to wander the plains punishing unfaithful men.
Some versions say that the woman’s name was Casilda, and that she set fire to her mother’s house, where her husband and baby were, and then killed her mother with a machete, opening her belly. Others say that this specter can shape-shift, presenting herself as a dog, a wolf, or a woman with long black hair, dressed in a cloak of the same color. Finally, it has also been said that La Sayona gives a cry that bristles the skin, very similar to that of the Celtic banshees, although without deadly effects.
Many times we have wanted to do the same as this woman, who I will avoid calling Casilda, for I have never heard such a name before. Taking justice into our hands is too tempting, and though I’m sure more than one has done it, with each experience being different, all such acts have one thing in common: when acting under the influence of anger, the remedy is worse than the evil that afflicts.
This legend reminds me a lot of that of the Silbón, where punishing when it is not our responsibility ends in a worse sentence than we imagined, but there is a key element here: betrayal. It is true that trust is built over the years and is lost in just a second, with just one mistake, but gossip is the worst enemy that can exist for her.
From the moment she was cursed by her mother, La Sayona is said to punish unfaithful men and those who are willing to be, either by scaring them or by eating their bodies with animal fangs she reveals when it is too late. We could say that she is an avenger of the marriage bond, a feminine force of justice, but we would be leaving aside the fact that, in her anger, her desire for revenge, she lost the possibility of any rest. All her energy and power is used for one purpose only: to punish.
The same is true when we get carried away by heated discussions. News headlines are riddled with cases where anger, thirst for vengeance, and blindness have produced a staggering number of catastrophes. It is very easy to get carried away by anger, but it is expensive to repair the damage, and sometimes it is not even possible, as in the case of La Sayona. Carried away by her low desires, dominated by her animal fury, she attacked her own origin, because she attacked right in the place that gave her life: her mother’s womb. She herself was her own judge, jury, and executioner.
In Latin America, even more so in Venezuela, it is said that “the mother is sacred.” Any evil, any sin, any mistake can be redeemed, but the mother figure, being the one that breeds life, is untouchable in every way, because it is an offense towards us and towards our history. This woman insulted all her ancestors, broke her connection with life itself, condemning herself to live eternally in a liminal space. Ironically, the same has happened with her story.
If there is one thing my family has taught me, it is that when “adults speak, one is silent.” Today I am also an adult, but it does not mean that my voice rises above those who came before me. The few times that I let myself be carried away by anger, either speaking or keeping silent, I have regretted it many times, even the most minimal mistakes.
One of them was when my grandmother asked me if I was still reading the Bible. She used to ask the same question because, when I was in high school, I always had a book with me, and many times they were thick books. That day, I was lying in a bedroom and she sat near the door, talking to my uncles and aunts. At some point, she was alone for a few seconds, and she made the comment, smiling as usual, and I simply wrinkled my face and continued reading, without saying anything. Although it happened years ago, I have not been able to forgive myself because even the respect we owe to a mother is nothing compared to that we owe to a grandmother.
There is a reason behind the saying that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” La Sayona is proof of the dangers of not following that creed, of acting in the heat of the moment. No matter what happens, we must keep our heads clear and our hearts calm, lest we make an error impossible to remedy – a lesson I have learned over time.
I would like to think that, when the legend of La Sayona disappears, her soul will finally stop wandering in the Venezuelan plains, but being forgotten is not an ending we may want. Each person is responsible for their mistakes, no matter how hard it is. Only we ourselves can decide between condemning ourselves after a single action, irreparable betrayal, and honoring what our ancestors have taught us, whether or not they are bound to us by blood.