The Mythical ”El Duende”

El Duende (mythology)
A duende is a fairy- or goblin-like mythological creature from Iberian, Latin American and Filipino folklore. Duendes may also have some traits similar to goblins and kobolds.

The word is often considered to be the Spanish and Portuguese equivalent of the English word “sprite” or the Japanese word yōkai and is used as an umbrella term for any fairy-like being such as goblins, pixies and elves.

The word is also used in Portuguese folklore, being used to describe Goblins, pixies, brownies and leprechauns. They are believed to be of a small stature wearing big hats, whistling a mystical song, while walking in the forest. Using their talent, they are believed to lure young girls and boys to the forest causing them to lose their way home.

Latin America
Conversely, in some Latin American cultures, the Duendes are believed to be the helpers of people who get lost in the forest so they could find their way home. In the folklore of the Central American country of Belize, particularly amongst the country’s African/Carib-descended Creole and Garifuna populations, Duende are thought of as a forest spirit called “Tata Duende” who lacks thumbs.

In Hispanic folklore of Mexico and the American Southwest, duendes are known as gnome like creatures who live inside the walls of homes, especially in the bedroom walls of young children. They attempt to clip the toenails of unkempt children, often leading to the mistaken removal of entire toes. They are also known for taking items from young children. They have also been able to barter with the mother of young children so that they can take the child and have them to eat. They appear at night when children are at play with a ball, and watch the children and later make their appearance and confront the children.

Chamorro people tell tales of taotaomonas, duendes and other spirits. Duende, according to the Chamorro-English Dictionary by Donald Topping, Pedro Ogo and Bernadita Dungca, is a goblin, elf, ghost or spook in the form of a dwarf, a mischievous spirit which hides or takes small children.

Some Filipinos believe in dwende, which frequently live in rocks and caves, old trees, unvisited and dark parts of houses or in ant hills where they are called nuno sa punso (old man of the mound). They are either categorized as good or evil depending on their color, white or black, respectively, and often play with children.

Similar folklore
While its nature varies throughout Portugal, Brazil, Spain, Spanish-speaking America and the Philippines, analogues from other cultures include the Danish–Norwegian Nisse, the French lutin and Nain Rouge, the Irish clurichaun, leprechaun, and far darrig, the Manx fenodyree and mooinjer veggey, the Scottish/English brownie, the Welsh Tylwyth Teg, and the Swedish Tomte.[citation needed]

The etymology of the word “duende” reinforces the equivalence to the latter (tomte from tomt=”home”) as it shares the same origin as the Portuguese word dono, “owner” (from the Latin word for house “domus”).[citation needed] As Federico García Lorca uses the term, it seems closer to fairy as a realm of being.


“Do not go to the bush to cut firewood nor look for coconut husks, or El Dueno del Monte” will get you”. This was a common threat in the 1940’s and 50’s which mom would use when she needed the children at home for some chores rather than going to the bush. The children, of course, preferred going to the bush for the thrill of some adventure. It was not that they liked cutting firewood, but hunting for bird nests and raiding the eggs was a thrill in itself. It also meant drinking fresh coconut water or hunting for coco plums or sea grapes. A trip to the bush could also run you the luck of killing some wild bird, a bush hog or even a deer. Now that was indeed a thrill.

El Tata Duende
(Illustration from – Characters &
Caricatures in Belizean Folklore)
So how could mom’s funny threats about El Dueno del Monte scare anyone and keep him out of the bush? El Dueno del Monte was another name given to El Duende. Those who saw him said he was about 3 feet tall and wore a wide brimmed hat. Sometimes he wore a red hat and animal skins for clothing. Dad said that El Duende protected the animals in the bush and would get very angry when little boys killed birds without a reason. Mom said one could kill a bird if he would eat it, but to shoot one with a sling shot just to prove one’s talent was wrong. El Duende was a daytime creature and would roam the bush and watch you mysteriously if you were killing animals.

Sometimes El Duende would get tired and sit at the foot of a tree and fall asleep. He would transform itself into red clay. Anyone spotting it would think it was some Maya artifact, but if you took it home, he would escape during the night. Therefore you can bet your sweet lip that if we found a clay figurine in the bush, we would not even touch it.

What happened if the Duende caught you in the bush? Well, he would take you to his dwelling, which was a spot deeper in the woods, probably a cave. But there was a way to escape him. He only had four fingers, and no thumb, so if surprised by him, you could hide your thumb in the palm of your hands and he would think you are one of his, and he would leave you unharmed. In this respect, El Duende was just like the Sisimito, another folklore character in San Pedro. Most of the evil characters were scared away if you made the sign of the cross with sticks or even with your fingers, but El Duende was not an evil character, so he was not scared away by “the cross”. In fact, El Duende was a friendly character and only punished you if you were killing too many animals or doing mischief in the bush. He would be frequently spotted especially during the Lenten Season and especially on Good Fridays.

El Duende was identified by a piercing whistling, and that was his weakness. Anyone whistling in the bush was a target of an attack by him. That is why dad used to say: “Never whistle while you are in the bush, or you will be calling on the Duende to attack you.” Twenty five years ago, if anyone saw a strange man in the village and he would ask you to follow him, you can be sure that no one did for fear that he could be the infamous Duende.


About Andrew

Co-founder & lead investigator of Paranormal Encounters. I've experienced the paranormal all my life, having encountered ghosts, angels and demons. I live in a haunted house and when not exploring and researching the unknown, I enjoy single malt Scotch whisky & potato chips (though not necessarily at the same time).