The Mirror Devils of Panama


One of the most picturesque cultural icons of the Santeño’s tradition,  are the Diablos de los Espejos (Mirror Devils).  They are most commonly found in the Provinces of Los Santos and Herrera in the Peninsula of Azuero.

According to a book edited  by Dale A. Olson and Daniel E. Sheehy dubbed, “The Garland Handbook of Latin American Music – Second Edition”, the Mirror Devils were used to instruct the uneducated population about religious matters.  This is what they  wrote about this iconic Panamanian folkloric character:

“During the colonial period, liturgical dramas in spoken verse were common in Latin America.  They instructed the illiterate population in the wonders and mysteries of biblical narratives.

In Panama, the Mirror Devils (Diablos de los Espejos) and Big Devils (Gran Diablo) respectively from Garachiné and Chorrera, portray variants of the Christian theme of the eternal battle between good and evil.  Musicians accompany the Mirror Devils as they enact the defeat of the devil by the Holy Spirit.”

The devil dances have their origin in European masquerades. Especially after the plague, the macabre and the devil were themes for many celebrations. In the case of the devil dances in Panama, they all serve a religious purpose: the evangelization of the devil. So these diabolic creatures came to be a vivid image of the battle between good and evil that promoted conversion. Most of the devil dances are usually practiced for the religious feast of  Corpus Christi, that celebrates the presence of Jesus in the host. These practices are colonial, but there are no dates that we can specify as to when or where they started. Most probably very early in the 16th. century.

In this dance, there is a variation in which the demons carry mirrors that according to local superstitions, are to reflect or to ward off the evil eye (mal de ojo). This is also a carnival dance that mocks the King of the festivities. los Diablos de los Espejos is a dance that was rescued and reintegrated once again into the carnival celebrations.

The Diablos de los  Espejos from the Peninsula of Azuero are dressed with bright-colored clothes with hanging mirrors from the garments. The origin of the dance is European but has definitely acquired African elements. The black population that practices this is not the typical Caribbean West Indian, but is  what has been called Afro-colonial which defines the black population that came under the Spanish colonial system as slaves, many years before the West Indians came to build the Panama Canal. They practice their picturesque dances during carnivals and the dance includes an interesting episode where the devil is baptized.

During the Santeño’s parade at Juan Díaz I was able to photograph several of these traditional icons of the Panamanian folklore.   It was the first time I was able to get very close to them.  I even had the opportunity to exchange a few words with one of them who was extremely well-mannered and courteous.  I was fascinated with their exotic costumes and their graceful movements of feet and hips which evoked the Spanish and African cultural mixture, as well as the aspects of the masks resembling ugliness and fear.

This is what I saw on November 10th at Juan Díaz.  Here we go.  (Please click on the images to enlarge them and appreciate them better.)

Photograh of the courteous Mirror Demon who was very kind to pose for the camera. His dress-up is spectacular. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
(Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
(Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
(Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
(Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
(Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
(Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
(Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
(Credit: Omar Upegui R.)

This part of the parade was the most spectacular and full of movements and colors.  I would say it was the most awe-inspiring section of the parade.  But there is still another surprise which will knock your socks off.  If you want to know more, please stay tuned to tomorrow’s post.  You will be glad you did.  As the day progressed, the event got better and better.  Good Day.

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3 thoughts on “The Mirror Devils of Panama”

  1. Omar:
    Muy pintorescas las fotos. Excelente informacion, me educo en algo que no conocia acerca de estos diablos de mi Panama. Gracias.
    Jaime^

  2. I also saw a parade in the village of Garachiné in 1989. I was an engineer there. What I saw was more trial and occurred when the sun set.

    In fact it was my birthday.

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