What is the best friend of humankind? Everyone knows the answer. However, according to one Central American legend, dogs can be both our best friends and our worst enemies.
Like many pieces of legend and folklore, the legend of El Cadejo has spread throughout Central America and gone through many permutations from culture to culture, meaning that many different people will give you many different versions of the story. However, as it typically goes, the story involves an evil black dog and a good white dog.
To be clear, your black Labrador Retriever is not a supernatural harbinger of death. Likewise, your white Pomeranian might still be a misbehaved little fiend. These representations of good and evil as white and black are connected to the dualistic Christian worldview that made its way through Central America during the period of European colonization and evangelism.
The idea goes back to the Book of Genesis in the Bible in which God separates the light from the darkness and, from there, darkness and night became associated with evil and light and day became associated with good.
Although the legend of El Cadejo has been around since before the Europeans landed in Central America, it was transformed after colonization to represent incarnations of God and the Devil.
Every country to which this legend has traveled has added its own cultural flair to the story, making it more unique and relatable to their beliefs. And, if you believe in this legend, it’s important to remember that even though there may be an evil black dog out there leading travelers to their deaths, we should still show love to our own canine companions.
The Origins of the El Cadejo Legend
El Cadejo likely originates from the Mesoamerican beliefs in the nahual, which were animal spirits that protected people for their entire lives. In Mexico and Central America, there was a specific belief that the Xoloitzcuintle (an actual type of dog) escorted souls to the underworld after their deaths. This type of dog was also associated with the god Xolotl, an Aztec god that was depicted with the head of a dog and was believed to be a soul-guide for the dead.
Eventually, the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Central America and brought with them many legends about ghost dogs (along with a whole heap of death, destruction, and human rights atrocities). They also brought with them a belief in Christianity and a dualistic worldview in which those who were righteous were protected by angels and those who were sinful were stalked by demons.
So, once the Spanish arrived in Central America with their own dog-based legends, the two mythologies mixed and eventually transformed into the legend that we know today as El Cadejo.
The legend refers to both evil black dogs and good white dogs that fight endlessly like angels and demons in Christian cosmology. In fact, some have even gone so far as to claim that the evil Cadejo is an incarnation of the Devil himself.
Variations of the El Cadejo Myth
Since the myth of El Cadejo has spread so widely throughout Central America, there are many variations of the story and it’s hard to pin down the exact characteristics of Cadejos. Typically, the story involves two dog spirits that appear to travelers at night: the black one, which will try to kill them, and the white one, which will protect them on their journey.
In certain places, it is believed that both Cadejos are good and will unite to protect a traveler who is being threatened by an evil spirit or bad person. In other versions of the story, the black Cadejo is the good one and the white Cadejo is bad.
The Cadejos are usually described as being supernaturally large dog-like creatures, sometimes as large as a full-grown cow. They are often said to have glowing red eyes that you can see through the darkness and hooves like that of a goat, bull, or deer.
In some countries, El Cadejo is also said to move more like a deer than a dog. In some versions of the story, the creature is also said to be dragging a chain that wraps around its neck. In fact, some claim that the word “cadejo” comes from the Spanish word for “chain.”
In terms of their behavior, the white Cadejo is often said to protect people, particularly drunks and vagabonds, while the black Cadejo is said to lure people deep into the woods or to influence them to make bad decisions.
The white Cadejo is believed to subsist on a diet of bellflowers that can only be found on the slopes of volcanoes. The black Cadejo, on the other hand, is believed to feast on newborn babies. Apparently, the black Cadejo has also been known to stand up on two feet and throw punches.
A warning sign that a Cadejo is near is a strong goat-like smell and, if you should be fortunate enough to kill a Cadejo that threatens you, a pungent goat-like smell will linger in the area for several days.
If you are confronted by a Cadejo, you should never look away from it. Doing so will make you lose your mind. You should also never attempt to speak to a Cadejo as this will also cause you to go crazy.
The Legend of Juan Carlos
The legend of Juan Carlos comes from Guatemala and is inextricably tied to the legend of El Cadejo in that country. As the legend goes, Juan Carlos was a man who lived in the early 1900s near the town of Los Arcos.
During the day, he would go to work near Parroquia Vieja and leave his wife and children at home alone. One day, Juan Carlos found a white dog near his house and tried to approach it. However, the dog whimpered and ran away. After that, each time that Juan Carlos would try to follow the dog, it would always elude him.
Finally, one day, Juan Carlos found the dog sitting silent and unmoving with its eyes closed. Juan Carlos approached cautiously and touched the dog’s paw, causing the dog’s eyes to open. He backed up in fear as the dog began to speak.
The dog told Juan Carlos that he had been sent from above to protect him and his family from harm, but that they were not in need of protection anymore. The dog then closed its eyes and died. Juan Carlos buried the dog on his property and remembered the dog each time that he returned home safely to find that his wife and children were safe as well.
The Art of Carlos Loarca
Some of the most famous references to El Cadejo in art are the paintings of Guatemalan-born artist Carlos Loarca. He believed in the legend of El Cadejo and even believed that El Cadejo was responsible for protecting his father, who came home safely from the cantina every night.
When Loarca reached adulthood, he credited El Cadejo for protecting him and helping him to break his own alcohol habit. Over the span of his career, Carlos Loarca produced a series of paintings inspired by El Cadejo.