Saturday, 24 September 2022

Colonial Cryptid Footprint

What is a Duende?

Duende is a Spanish word for “goblin or “dwarf” and is etymologically derived from dueno de casa (lord of the house), referring to a Spanish household spirit. Duendes feature in written and oral traditions in Latin America, Spain, and Europe and are described as being of a small stature, 1.5 to 4.5 feet in height, broad shouldered and covered in thick hair. They have large teeth and pointed ears and their faces are wrinkled. They have long beards and are reputed in some regions to wear a big hat. The Duende is reputed to whistle a mystical song, while walking in the forest.

Spanish and Portuguese folklore is replete with tales and legends about various types of duendes which sport numerous regional names and behaviours. In these countries we see again that Duende is often a coverall term for elf like creatures that are described as small hairy gnome like beings, clothed in red or green that can help around the farm/home or hinder, depending on the mood or relationship one has formed with the creature. 

They are often said to dwell in mountains, underground hollows, near ponds, and, not unlike the Irish leprechaun and other legendary little people – they can be found guarding great treasure. They also have a disposition for stealing possessions or children and a love of milk or cream that is observed in many other members of the European fae family. They are also described as beautiful and benevolent nymphs or fair faced human sized faeries.

Conversely, in some Latin American cultures, duendes are believed to come to the aid of people who get lost in the forest, helping them to find their way home. These gnome-like creatures who live inside the walls of homes, especially in the bedroom walls of young children, allegedly attempt to clip the toenails of unkempt children, occasionally leading to the erroneous removal of entire toes! 

Belief in duendes still exists among the Mixtecs and Zapotecs of Oaxaca and it is said that they are most commonly found in the mossy cloud forests of the state's mountain ranges. In the jungles of Belize, for example, there is a superstition of a repulsive gnome, called Tata Duende; that punishes those who do not respect the forest.

Digital Folklore Revival

There have been a rash of ‘alleged' encounters posted online since the noughties; usually featuring teenagers, or children; or families with children who whilst casually filming their own activities, manage to capture a Duende on film scuttling into view. Of course, as might be expected with such inconclusive forms of evidence, most clips cut short shortly after the creature is spotted, and are annotated by the uproarious and terrified screams of the witnesses; who rush to post their encounters online... Whatever conclusion one comes away with after viewing some of this footage, what cannot be doubted is, that the Duende superstition is still alive and well in Central & South America.


One of the most well-known Duende sightings by far happened in 2008 in the town of General Guemes, in the province of Salta, Argentina, a country steeped in stories of the creatures. The sighting was made by a group of teenagers who were hanging out one evening after a fishing trip when they saw a tiny man dressed in a wide, pointed hat emerge from the dark to do a strange sideways shuffle across the road. One of the teenagers, a Jose Alvarez, actually managed to capture the strange being on his cellphone camera, and said of the bizarre encounter:

“We were chatting about our last fishing trip. It was one in the morning. I began to film a bit with my mobile phone while the others were chatting and joking. Suddenly we heard something — a weird noise as if someone was throwing stones. We looked to one side and saw that the grass was moving. To begin with, we thought it was a dog, but when we saw this gnome-like figure begin to emerge we were really afraid. This is no joke.  We are still afraid to go out, just like everyone in the neighbourhood is now. One of my friends was so scared after seeing that thing that we had to take him to the hospital.”

The video clip certainly shows a rather unsettling and creepy gnome-like being doing a strange sideways walk, but it is very short and not particularly clear, leading many to say that it is likely a hoax. Other speculation has been that it is an actual human with dwarfism playing a prank on the boys or even that it is a genuine Duende. The odd sighting came amongst some other sightings of the creatures in the area at around the same time, and there have been commenters on various paranormal sites who have analysed the video and come to the conclusion that whatever it is, it is not CGI. .

Argentina has been the source of quite a few rather frightening encounters with evil gnomes. In 2011 the area of Suncho Corral, Argentina experienced a wave of sightings and encounters with a Duende that seems by all accounts to have been quite malevolent. The creature in question was said to have the typical big, pointy hat, as well as large, elfin ears, and was blamed for a series of at least a dozen vicious, unprovoked attacks on children and the elderly walking alone at night, which the entity purportedly shoved, kicked, and punched. In some cases it was reported that the mystery creature actually knocked kids off of their bicycles, and some people were reportedly beaten into unconsciousness by the fierce gnome. The police were allegedly received so many complaints from terrified residents that they declared a state of emergency and implored people not to go out at night.

One of the most bizarre cases of all in recent years of Duendes is a 2016 account from Nicaragua in which a woman made the incredibly odd and dramatic claim that she was kidnapped by the creatures and kept captive for 5 days and 6 nights. The woman, known only as Jasmina, claims that she was out playing near her home in Monte Oscuro, Nicaragua, when a group of the menacing little entities appeared and lured her up a hill, where they abducted her and put her in the cave. According to the report, her family sought advice from a local witch and were finally able to locate her. The original report says that 15 years earlier another girl had been kidnapped by the creatures and held captive in the very same cave. Apparently these gnomes or goblins are a serious problem in the area, with one local saying:

“Currently there are many of these creatures living in San Silvestre and in Peor Dicho, in Monte Oscuro and in La Gualapa. There are a lot that live in San Silvestre and around it, they stay away from the church and they also exist in other areas nearby. In San Jose they live in another hill there, and they communicate from hill to hill.”

Beastly Theories

Colonial Cryptid Footprint:  It is quite obvious to any objective observer that Duende tradition and superstition is rooted in Europe, particularly in Spain and Portugal and that its dissemination throughout the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries in central and South America, and as far away as the Philippines, is proof positive of the cultural and superstitious assimilation, or melding, of colonised populations with the folklore of their colonisers. In Central and South America, these traditions are thought to be a mix of European elven folktales and Indian trickster myths. Though, I think it more likely that these Indian trickster myths were replaced by Duende folklore and have over the subsequent generations taken on more of the character of their European replacements.

Allopatric Speciation: Allopatric speciation, also referred to as geographic speciation, vicariant speciation, or its earlier name, the dumbbell model, is a mode of speciation that occurs when biological populations become geographically isolated from each other to an extent that prevents or interferes with gene flow. Darwin’s finches are one well known example of this. Another, obvious example would be the 8 extant species of bear that we know of. Could the Duende in Central and South America simply be another species of a diminutive bipedal primate or proto pygmy, once ethno-known throughout Europe and now hanging on to existence in less industrialised areas of the world? Did Europeans encounter little people legends in the Americas that were so close to their own, that they simply replaced local Indian names with their own cultural cognomens for these cryptid creatures?

Other alleged Duende clips, photos and eyewitness accounts can be found below:

Written by Andy McGrath

Hear more about the Duende and other Littefolk in my new audiobook:

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