El Susto

by Susana Raymundo

In a continuing series, we are looking at some of the beliefs and folklore particular to Guatemala. This month, El Susto (The Fear).

When I was 3 or 4 years old and my mother took me out in public people would stare at me and say what a pretty girl and they would come up and touch me, but this used to scare me, especially when they had blue or green eyes or curly hair. When I was old enough to run errands I had to go to a field far from my house to look for my father and tell him to come for lunch and there were always barking dogs that chased me.  This was my first memory of El Susto.

The Fear (El Susto in Spanish) is also thought to come from an accident, or from experiencing some natural phenomenon like an earthquake, hurricane or from going into some unknown place – one traditional remedy here is that adults call children’s names when they are somewhere new, to avoid them being overcome by El Susto.

Lack of appetite and insomnia are symptoms of the condition that leads to hair loss, palid skin and depression. People who suffer from deep fears can experience all of these.

The traditional cure for El Susto is a ceremony lead by people with the gift of healing or skills in traditional medicine, but others also participate – the child’s parents, neighbors, sometimes there are people specialized in the curing of El Susto. Every village has its own traditions and practices.

In the ceremony, the afflicted person is frightened three times, and each time their name is called, beckoning their soul to return. To frighten the afflicted, the priest may throw water on them when they are distracted, or scream, or do a variety of other things – the idea is to maximize the trauma.

Other people use a mixture of different plants and medicinal liquids, applied on some part of the body or taken as a tea.

My favorite tea is the one I take when I am sick. It was a mix of seven spirits, holy water and flower water. They’re traditional liquids and there is no recipe, but it’s a mix that’s heavily used in Mayan celebrations and healing ceremonies, and is considered a sacred liquid. One of its ingredients is Common Rue, a medicinal plant. Another is Cusha – homemade rum that is frowned upon by some Guatemalans, but is widely used throughout Mayan culture. The flavor of this tea is very good – I recommend you get sick so you can try some.

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