Maya Lore

Xkeban and Utz-Colel (image credit: Jair Caraveo)

Xkeban and Utz-Colel (image credit: Jair Caraveo)

The Legend of Xkeban

According to Maya folklore, Xkeban (pronounced “Sh-keh-bahn”) was a beautiful woman who always ready to help her neighbors, even if she was often misunderstood. While some people know a related tale—that of Ixtabay (“Ish-tah-bye,”) also known “the white witch”—you may not have heard about Xkeban.

Here is how the tale goes:

Once upon a time, there was a small Maya village where two women lived: Utz-Colel (“ootz-co-lell”) and Xkeban. While some versions of the tale describe them as sisters, others present them simply as neighbors. While each of these women was exceedingly beautiful, their personalities could not have been more different.

Utz-Colel, as her name in Mayan suggests, was a “good woman.” She lived her life as a pious, righteous virgin, and she never did anything sinful or wrong. Thus, she was held in high esteem by her neighbors, and she was never the subject of village gossip. However, Utz-Colel, was also proud and haughty, believing that her beauty and purity made her far superior to all those around her. Because of this egotism, she was hard-hearted and incapable of loving anyone. In her pride, she was disgusted by the poor and the sick, and she never stooped to offer them aid.

A replica of a Maya hut in Isla Mujeres (photo credit: J. McCaughan)

A replica of a Maya hut in Isla Mujeres (photo credit: J. McCaughan)

Xkeban, on the other hand, was considered by her neighbors to be a “sinful woman.” Passionate and unfettered in her behavior, she was driven by love, and so she was shunned by the townspeople, who looked down on her promiscuous ways. However, Xkeban’s deep-seated love also led her to be the kindest woman in the village, and she was always ready to care for the sick, feed the poor, and even help animals in need.

And so the two women lived for many years in the village—one celebrated despite her hollow, uncaring piety, and the other reviled for her deep, undiscriminating love.

Then, one morning, Xkeban failed to come out of her house. She was not seen in the village the next day, nor the next. Finally, the villagers went to check on her, and as they approached her home, a sweet aroma wafted towards them on the breeze. When they opened the door, the floral scent was even stronger, and they found Xkeban’s body looking as fresh as if she had just laid down for a nap. Around her, animals from the village sat in silent vigil.

The villagers were astonished by this sight, none more so than Utz-Colel. She was horrified and angry to think that the body of such a sinful woman as Xkeban could be so well-favored in death. Rather than realizing the power of the love that had resided in Xkeban’s heart, Utz-Colel exclaimed that this had to be the work of an evil spirit and that, as a righteous woman, upon death, her own body would smell even lovelier.

Xtabentun (image credit: shroomery)

Xtabentun (image credit: shroomery)

While it was difficult to find villagers willing to bury Xkeban’s body, she was finally interred, and the next day, the villagers were again astonished. Covering her grave was a blanket of beautiful morning glory flowers (known as “xtabentun” in Mayan and “ololiuhqui” in Nahuatl). Upon seeing this, Utz-Colel was even more angered, and in her jealousy, she exclaimed that, surely, far more beautiful flowers would grow upon her own grave when she died.

That day soon came, but rather than a beautiful floral aroma, emanating from the virgin’s corpse was the horrible stench of decomposition as her body had begun rotting immediately. Still, all of the villagers turned out for Utz-Colel’s funeral, and they covered her grave with beautiful flowers. Yet, by dawn those flowers had withered, and their attendant foul odor led the villagers to exclaim that this must be the work of an evil spirit. In their place had sprouted a tzacam flower, a spiny, foul-smelling cactus plant.

While Xkeban rested in peace, covered by her blanket of morning glories, Utz-Colel was consumed with hatred and jealousy in the after-life. She resolved to return to earth and live as Xkeban had, so that she, too, might earn a grave covered with beautiful flowers. And thus, Utz-Colel returned to the land of the living.

Ixtabay (image credit: artist unknown)

Ixtabay (image credit: artist unknown)

However, with her hollow soul, Utz-Colel could not see that it was Xkeban’s deep love for which she had been so honored. Rather, she believed that it was Xkeban’s promiscuity that had been rewarded, and so, aided by evil spirits, Utz-Colel returned as the seductress Ixtabay, the white witch.

And this is the part of the tale that most people know…

Standing among the spiny ceiba trees in the Mayan jungle, the beautiful, white-clad Ixtabay awaits, combing her long black hair with a piece of the spiny tzacam cactus, luring men towards her and seducing them. When she finally has her way with them, she murders them, and their bodies are often found ripped to shreds, sometime covered with thorns from the tzacam flower or the ceiba tree.

For this reason, men should be very careful when they return through the jungle to their homes at night, especially if they have been drinking.

While the story of Ixtabay is intriguing, we feel that the example of kind-hearted Xkeban should also be remembered and emulated. For that reason, we have chosen to use her name for our project, and her flower, the Xtabentun, for our logo.

Xkeban logo