For hundreds of years in Dominican folklore, people have spoken of the legend of ‘La Ciguapa’ – a beautiful woman who can be found roaming through the trees at night. She has dark features, piercing eyes and hair that swings past her waist; the only way you can tell she’s something other than human is by her backwards facing feet. La Ciguapa’s hypnotic beauty usually reels men in before they notice the oddity below her ankles – and then she eats them alive.
In other parts of the world La Ciguapa is also known as a Succubus, a female fiend who looks like an angel that ‘eats the souls of men’. The origin of the Succubus can be traced back to the story of Lilith, a notorious demon or feminist icon, depending on who you ask or what book you read. (Random fact: the origin of the word ‘lullaby’ is actually ‘Lilith, be gone!’)
According to Jewish folklore Lilith was the first woman on earth, but her time in the Garden of Eden with Adam was short lived as she refused to let him dominate her. They were created equals Lilith said, insisting that she would never lay under him. Adam refused to accept that and so Lilith fled the garden, making room for Eve. Not that Eve’s luck was much better. No matter the woman, she was labelled a sinner. Delivering the narrative that women bear the burden of Original Sin was a clever way to implement global patriarchy.
The tale of the woman with strange feet is so captivating to me because it’s been reported across the globe before we had transoceanic communications – the Ciguapa story has a lot of parallels to tales told about European Mermaids, and they both ring similar to stories told about Churels in South Asia. If there is no truth in it, then how?
I have artwork of an Indian woman in my hallway at home, a huge glass painting cradled in a heavy metal frame that was flown in from Pakistan. My aunt painted it, and gave it to me a few years ago – one thing I never thought much of was how my aunt had painted the woman’s feet. A friend came to my house lately and asked “what’s up with her feet?” and I immediately thought of all the Churel stories I had been told and I realised, maybe I had one on the wall.
They say the Churel’s natural hidden form is hideous – she has snakes for hair, which of course, reminds me of Medusa and naturally fills me with empathy for the Churel, because if you know the story of Medusa, you know she was the victim.
I feel like the phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” was made for these legends, and I want to know more about them. I find it so interesting that women who have been victims of tragedy always rise from the dead as monsters – they never rise victorious, and elements regarding their womanhood are always tangled into the tale as a contributing factor to their monstrous fate. For example, some people believe a woman becomes a Churel if they die whilst menstruating. Like, what?!
The story of the Churel is also mentioned in countless pieces of literature. Adele Florence Nicholson was a writer whose work was published under the pseudonym Laurence Hope in the 1800s. One of her poems read:
Her spirit takes the form of a Churel,
A maiden’s form, with soft, alluring eyes,
Where promises of future rapture dwell.
Yet is her loveliness, though passing sweet,
Marred by the backward-turning of her feet.