Headless Horror: El padre sin cabeza

Posted by Ilse Marie Bussing on October 28, 2008 in Blog tagged with

    Once again, drunk men are the favorite targets of moralistic legends. "El padre sin cabeza" (the headless priest) is a Costa Rican legend that, like "La segua," admonishes and attempts to correct improper behaviour.  Nevertheless, the remarkable aspect about  this tale of a headless priest is the emphasis that is placed on the religious, thus highlighting a culture-specific aspect of Latin American Gothic.  But before embarking on an analysis of the legend, we should get on with the gritty stuff.

   On a balmy night during colonial times, a peasant wandered aimlessly around the deserted town square.  The square, as in any Latin American town, stood in front of the church and was comprised of a park full of trees, a fountain and benches, used by the town dwellers who would sit in the lazy hours of the day and watch life go by.  Our protagonist had been drinking a little bit too much and decided to sit on one of these benches, in spite of how late it was.  The warm wind picked up some leaves which landed on his feet.  He leaned down to brush these away , but as he sat up, he noticed that within the church which he was facing,candles were lit, and music seemed to be coming from the inside.   As in a trance, he walked into the church, past the empty rows of benches, looking up at the saints on the white-washed walls, walls that had been stained by the dark marks left by the lighting of candles and incense throughout the years.  As he approached the front of the church, he noticed that there was a figure of a priest reciting mass in Latin.  Feeling the weight of his sins and  overwhelmed by this mystical experience, the peasant approached the priest.  But as the priest turned towards him, the horror was revealed!  In the place of the head only a terrorific stump remained, and the figure held his bloody head with his outstretched arms.   The peasant ran outside of the church but was left literally speechless by this encounter.  With time, the peasant gained his power of speech and changed his sinful ways for good.

   There has been some research conducted about the historical origin for this legend, but as with any folkloric tale, what is truly fascinating here is the information that is transmitted about a culture and its idiosyncrasies.  "El padre sin cabeza" conveys the central role that the Catholic tradition plays in Latin American culture, especially the feeling of guilt that constantly pursues people.  I believe that the issue of guilt, generated by this religious tradition, creates an extremely fertile ground for Gothic creations.  This legend says that apart from the drinking, the protagonist became overwhelmed by the weight of his sins; even though he was attracted to the religious atmosphere of the eerie mass, perhaps he needed to be scared out of his wits in order to truly repent and find the "right path." 

   The other interesting aspect of the legend is that of speech.  The priest, despite being headless, is still able to recite mass in Latin.  The peasant, on the other hand, has not lost his head, but does loose the power of speech.  An immediate interpretation would emphasize the issue of terror/horror and interpret the loss of speech as a product of this horrific, almost sublime encounter.  However, one may also argue that the peasant has been humbled, thus silenced, by the power of the God and the church.  This would also explain why the headless priest is still able to transmit God’s word.  Furthermore, Catholic tradition stresses the importance of speech whilst confessing one’s sins; if sins are not spoken, they will never be forgiven.  In other words, speech, redemption and confession are intertwined in the Catholic tradition, and I believe that this comes across in some Latin American legends.      

   As a conclusion, I would like to stress the point on Catholicism and guilt as being key in understanding the Latin American Gothic.  Even though I have discussed what I believe to be an important characteristic of this kind of literature, the question from last time remains.  Is a legend like "El padre sin cabeza" Gothic?  Could it be Gothic in Latin America and not Gothic in an European context?  Or vice-versa?  Is the guilt that is transmitted in Latin American Gothic different to the guilt that fuels Gothic texts from other countries?

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