December’s Dancing Devils
This year I was lucky enough to enjoy Cuidad Vieja’s Baile de los Diablos on my last trip to Guatemala. The play is an amazing experience full of cultural and traditional heritage unique to the country.
Every December Ciudad Vieja welcomes 24 devils to their streets. These devils search the city in pursuit of corrupt souls to take with them back to the pits of hell. Yet, the residents of the city come out to applaud these red devils, rather than running to hide. The 24 devils are the heroes of the Baile de los 24 Diablos, or the Dance of the 24 Devils. Cuidad Vieja, just outside of Antigua, hosts this theatrical dance on the streets of the town. Closing down the streets, the annual Dance of the 24 Devils is an exclusive tradition of the culture of Ciudad Vieja inhabitants, with over 400 years of history. This dance among several others, were introduced by Franciscan Monks, and are performed annually beginning on December 8th to honor the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.
Wearing macabre wooden masks the oldest dating back into the 1800’s, bright red robs, and blond wigs, the devious stars of the show portray the 20 devils, each representing a different sinful act. The four other actors depict Death, the Monkey, the Angel, and the Soul. The theatrical dance sends a didactic message to the audience, warning of the high cost for disobeying God’s commands. Juan Carlos Ordóñez explains “the play, according to popular lore, comes from the pen of a Franciscan monk whose sinful ways landed him in prison. If so, the author's own remorse and fear of eternal damnation may explain the enduring strength of the drama”.
The Chief Devil, once a beautiful being that transformed into a disturbing creature, begins the 3 hour drama grieving over his fall from decency. He quickly turns his fury to the humans and instructs his followers bring him the souls, which have been led astray. The other devils, each which represent a sin, appear and recite a verse of their sinister work.
When devils' performances finish, the struggle between good and evil develops with the Angel arriving to help the Soul. Yet evil succeeds in the end, and the defiant Soul falls into hell. Song and dance accompany the actors as they recite their verses in the play, using instruments such as the marimba and chirima (a type of flute), which have native origins, rather than Spanish.
Baile de los 24 Diablos almost had it’s last curtain call in the 18th century when it was banned by the Spanish, yet Cuidad Vieja residents continued to practice it in hiding which allowed the tradition to live on. It was recently declared a part of Guatemala’s cultural heritage by the Ministry of Culture and Sports. Cuidad Vieja will welcome any visitors on their travels to Guatemala, so make sure to stop in to see the Devils.