The folklore of Oaxaca, Mexico

Wall Mural, Oaxaca, 2011. Photo by Margaret Everett. Does it look as if this skeleton has braces, or is that just me?

I love folklore and myth so much that I have written a book about the history of an evil spirit -the Windigo- in Indigenous religion in the United States and Canada. So every year around Halloween I do posts that focus on mysteries.  I first did research in Oaxaca, Mexico back in 2004, and soon afterwards my wife chose it as the site for her anthropological field-work. For years my family and I would travel to Oaxaca. I fell in love with its Indigenous heritage, arts, culture and -perhaps most of all- food. And of course the folklore, which Hilary Morgan Leathem’s captures in her piece “Oaxacan Ruin Lore: When the Stones Come For You”

While it has now been years since I last returned to Oaxaca, this piece brought back memories of Monte Alban and Mitla. While Monte Alban is much better known, Mitla is an evocative (albeit much smaller) site. Although it can be easily viewed in an hour or less, for me the locale had an evocative, eerie feeling.  What I like about Leathem’s account is how it connects these Zapotec ruins to contemporary folklore. As Leathem describes the ruins haunt the local imagination: “Yet what is quite possibly most unique about Mitla are the stories where the landscape—or, rather, the ruins themselves – do the bewitching. There are multiple accounts of Mitla’s ruins haunting locals through disturbing and vivid dreams. . . . .In every instance where the ruins have possessed people through dreams, the individual descends into an atypical form of madness. They are struck with “ruin envy” and cannot rid their minds of the ruins.”

Wall in Oaxaca City, Mexico. Circa 2011. Photo by Margaret Everett

Mexico’s Indigenous heritage is so vast, deep and influential that haunts all aspects of Mexico’s rich folklore. My family and I was once driven through Oaxaca City by a taxi driver, who told me that underneath the city there were networks of tunnels that ran from one colonial Church to many other locations. At the time I thought that the idea was absurd. Now I wonder if this particular legend is not another aspect of this Indigenous legacy. If you want to learn more not only about Mexico’s mysteries and folklore, but also its Indigenous peoples and history, I highly recommend the podcast Mexico Unexplained by Robert Bitto. In the episode, “The Mysterious Tunnels of Teotihuacan” Bitto described how over a century of explorers and archaeologists have searched for an underground network of tunnels and grottos beneath this sprawling Meso-American city. The episode is worth listening to for the sense of wonder that may be evoked by some recent finds. But more particularly, this episode made me question if the folklore if I heard from that taxi driver perhaps had its origins in the stories about the tunnels under Teotihuacan. But then, caves and the underground world have always been important in Oaxaca’s Indigenous traditions (Steele, 1997).

Since the Spanish often built their colonial churches on the temples of the Indigenous peoples, perhaps it was not impossible that there were in fact tunnels under these sacred sites in Oaxaca city. I wonder what might turn up after a flood causes a sinkhole in Oaxaca someday. After all, wasn’t the Templo Mayor in Mexico City uncovered by electrical workers entirely by accident in 1978? There is so much missing and hidden in Mexico. And it is not only ruins that haunt the country’s imagination, but also tales of lost cities and islands. 

Mexican bar sign, Oaxaca City, Mexico. Photo by Margaret Everett around 2013.

If you want to hear about another mystery, please read this post on the Vela Incident. Or if you are interested in hearing more about global topics, please listen to my podcast, Dispatch 7. You can find it on Spotify here, or by searching whichever podcast platform you prefer.


Steele, J. F. (1997). Cave Rituals in Oaxaca, Mexico. Conference paper, presented at the Society for American Archaeology conference in Nashville, TN.

Shawn Smallman

Ruined building, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Margaret Everett.

Ghosts and Jinns of the Middle East

“Hundreds of vehicles line the highway during a pilgrimage to the Imam Ali Shrine that divides the Valley of Peace Cemetery in An Najaf. More than one million Shia Muslims are buried in the cemetery. The cemetery, covering more than four and a half square miles, is the second largest in the world and the final resting place of Imam Ali and several other prominent figures in Islam.” Sgt. Johnnie French [Public domain]. From Wikipedia Commons:
Every year I do a post on ghosts or the supernatural across borders, such a ghost ship in Canada, a haunted building in Hong Kong, a selection of spooky podcasts, or Japanese tales of the supernatural. With these posts I’ve covered a wide section of the globe, from northern folklore to a British novel. One region that I haven’t covered yet, however, is the Middle East. Back in September 2019 Sebastian Castelier and Quentin Muller published an evocative article in Al Jazeera titled Gravediggers claim ghosts haunt world’s largest cemetery in Iraq.

The article is based on interviews with the gravediggers at perhaps the world’s largest cemetery, called Wadi-us-Salaam or Valley of Peace, in Iraq. The cemetery is home to at least five million people, and graves there are highly prized. The gravediggers, however, report encounters with ghosts and the dead that leave them traumatized. One man even said that he was slapped by a corpse. I particularly liked the atmospheric pictures that accompanied the article.

Ruined palace that dates from the mid-fourteenth century in Fez, Morocco. Photo by Shawn Smallman

If you enjoy podcasts, you might like listening to Spooked. Season Two, episode three was titled the Iron Gate, for reasons that become clear during the tale. This story was told by a U.S. military veteran, who had an unsettling encounter in a strange, abandoned home in Iraq. Whatever it was in that house scared him as much as any sniper. There is something nightmarish about being in a house with many people, but at the same time being so truly alone. The first person narratives in the Spooked series are intimate. They may make you feel if you are listening to an old friend tell you a story across your kitchen table.

I also recommend the Relic podcast, in particular episode #46, “Atlantis of the Sands.” The episodes description says:

During World War II, an Englishman named T.E. Lawrence fought in the Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire. While travelling, “Lawrence of Arabia” learned of a majestic city that he dubbed “The Atlantis of the Sands”, a kingdom that been buried under the dunes of the Empty Quarter. But this lost city was well known to the Arab world; it had appeared in the 1,001 Nights and was even mentioned by name in The Quran. Is Ubar, or Iram of the Pillars, waiting to be unearthed?

The episode combines folklore, archaeology and history. By the end, I wanted to start pouring over some satellite images of the Arabian peninsula in search of a lost city. But it’s not a story from the Arabian peninsula that has most impacted ideas about death in the United States.

Chefchaouen Morocco is known as the “Blue Pearl.” In this city, even the tombs are blue.

One point that strikes me is the persistence of images associated with ancient Egypt in cemeteries and mausoleums with gates, buildings, or doors that were built in the United States during the early twentieth century. As you can see below, even in the gate to the North Dorchester Burying Ground in Massachusetts, which holds good Puritans from colonial New England (including at least one of my own ancestors), has an Egyptian motif on its gate. You can see a similar motif at the Mount Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was perhaps the most prestigious burial site in the state. For some reason, the well-to-do merchants, politicians and bankers in the state liked having an Egyptian image over this entry. In North America our idea of death has been shaped by artistic traditions from the Middle East for a long time. In the same way, frightening images of the undead -particularly the mummy- from the Middle East have shaped horror fiction, radio programs, podcasts and movies for generations. References to locations in the Middle East show up in fiction of the uncanny in the most unexpected ways. For example, one popular supernatural podcast, Tanis, is named after an ancient city in Egypt.

North Burying Ground, Dorchester, Massachusetts. Photo by Shawn Smallman.

For anyone interested in a deeper dive into how Middle Eastern traditions regarding jinn have influenced film and popular culture, please see Peterson’s work (2007) in the references below. While the book focuses on jinn (alternative spelling djinn) in movies, it also does a good job to place jinn in the context of traditional belief. While we might associate jinns with the genies in Disney films, the folkloric roots for this being are far more frightening than Aladdin or “I Dream of Genie” might suggest. And who knew that jinn became associated with consumer culture and consumption in the modern era?

If you want some frightening first hand accounts from Dubai residents please read Rohit Nair’s interviews in his piece, “Dubai residents recount their scariest moments.” Of course, since Dubai is a cosmopolitan place the stories people tale take place from Sri Lanka to the ghost village of Jazeera Al Hamra in Ras Al Khaimah, in the United Arab Emirates.

If you are curious to read more about folklore outside the Middle East you might be interested in my own book, Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth or History, which covers a belief in New England and the upper Midwest in the United States, and most of eastern Canada. You can see a brief video about the windigo here, and a review of my book here. The windigo was an Algonquian belief. The Algonquians were the most wide-spread cultural group in North America. The windigo was the spirit of winter and selfishness, which could transform a person into a cannibal monster. Much like the jinn, the idea of the windigo evolved with time, and became associated with capitalist culture. As with the jinn, the wendigo or windigo (there are many different spellings) has become appropriated by the dominant society, which has used it in TV shows (Supernatural), children’s programs, video games, and novels. If you do read my book, whether you love or hate it, please do leave a review on Goodreads.

This year I expect that most families in North American won’t have a typical Halloween, given the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope that you and your families there can stay home and enjoy watching “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or some other spooky film.

If you are interested in hearing more about global topics, please listen to my podcast, Dispatch 7. You can find it on Spotify here, or by searching whichever podcast platform you prefer.

Berber cemetery in the Dades Gorge, Morocco. The grave markers have no script. Photo by Shawn Smallman, 2020


Castelier, S. & Muller, Q. September 10, 2019. Gravediggers claim ghosts haunt world’s largest cemetery in Iraq, Al Jazeera website. Retrieved on September 13, 2019 from

Maxwell, February 19, 2020, “Episode #46, Atlantis of the Sands,” Relic podcast.

Peterson, M. A. (2007). From Jinn to Genies. Folklore/Cinema: Popular Film as Vernacular Culture1, 93.

Nair. R. October 30, 2015. Dubai residents recount their scariest moments. (n.d.). Retrieved from

NPR Radio, August 15, 2018. “The Iron Gate”, Spooked podcast.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Roman text from Volubilis, Morocco. The Romans abandoned the city in the third century, but much of its ruins and mosaics remain in remarkable condition. Photo by Shawn Smallman, 2020.

Global fire, fear and the good fire

I’ve blogged before about the emerging fire crisis, which has only become even more worrying over the last years. Recent fires swept through the entire West Coast, where many of my students, colleagues and family were affected. Given the multiple crises in the United States at the moment, I’m not sure how timely it is to address this topic now. But the fires aren’t going away in coming years.

Wildfire smoke in Healdsburg, California in September 2020. Photo by Chiara Nicastro.

To understand these fires better, there are two amazing podcasts that are worth listening too, even during the pandemic. The first is called Good Fire by Amy Cardinal Christianson and Matthew Kristoff. It looks at how Indigenous peoples have used their knowledge around the world to create better and safer environments. While much of that knowledge was lost or suppressed, it’s not all gone, and can still be revived. For me, this podcast emphasized that there is not only one science, and that Indigenous sciences and knowledge are critical to our efforts to address global crises. Grace Dillon recently talked about Indigenous knowledge in her podcast interview with me on Indigenous Futurism, in case anyone wants to dive more deeply into this topic. Good Fire provides a truly global introduction to Indigenous fire knowledge, that reaches from Brazil and Venezuela to Australia.

The second podcast that I want to recommend is CBC’s World on Fire, which itself references Good Fire. The hosts carefully discuss the history, science and global trends that define fire. It’s an engrossing podcast, filled with interviews and first person accounts. I know that during the pandemic people are doom-scrolling on Twitter, but many others are seeking to retreat from the world. But these two podcasts are worth investing some attention when you’re ready. Both podcasts are available on Apple podcasts, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms.

Photo of the California wildfire’s smoke by Chiara Nicastro.

If anyone wishes to read further, I also recommend Edward Struzik’s Firestorm: how wildfire will shape our future. Although book was written from a Canadian perspective -it begins with detailed coverage of the immense 2016 wild fire in Fort McMurray, Alberta- he spends a great deal of time examining why wildfires have become so much more deadly in North America’s recent past. Struzik also covers how Indigenous peoples managed the land, and lessened the risks of wildfires. The book provides a good complement to these two podcasts.

Shawn Smallman

Indigenous burial ground near Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The white haze is smoke from the September 2020 fires in California, Oregon and Washington. Photo by Elle Wild.

COVID-19 in Latin America

Years ago I wrote a book on the HIV pandemic in Latin America, which focused on the diversity of epidemics within the region. How could one virus cause such a diversity of outbreaks? Of course it’s impossible to discuss an epidemic without considering human behavior, which we certainly see now with COVID-19. What’s interesting to me is the contrast between Africa, where the death rate has been relatively low, and the severe outbreaks in some Latin American states. Two of my colleagues and I discussed Latin America’s experience with the outbreak in late May, on a panel that focused on Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. Of course, much has happened since then, from the terrible outbreak in Peru, to the mounting challenges faced by Argentina. Still, the broad strokes about how these nations responded to the pandemic has remained similar, such as the populism and denial of Brazil’s President Bolsonaro. You can view our panel here on YouTube.

Career opportunities for International and Global Studies majors

In my latest edition of my podcast I talk about careers in International and Global Studies, particularly the four main fields: business, non-governmental organizations, government, and jobs for which more education may be required. I also interview Chiara Nicastro about why MA programs are worthwhile. I also talk about the specific steps -such as internship and meeting with a career counselor- that can help students prepare for the job market.

Shawn Smallman

From Appalachia to China: banjos and the guzheng

Cultural Globalization is as important as political and economic globalization, and yet sometimes receives less media and popular attention.  It can also be a useful tool to introduce students to the idea of globalization. I have a colleague who teaches the “Introduction to International Studies” class at a local community college. He begins each class with a sampling of global music, such as West African fusion or Botswana jazz. He thinks that it helps to focus the students on the content of the class. Music is like food, a touch point that everyone shares, which can share as a place to start a conversation about globalization.

We’re all familiar with fusion music, which blends genres, but there are some truly unexpected combinations. Since I like bluegrass -and am studying Chinese- a colleague introduced me to Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn’s music, which combines the the banjo to combine with the guzheng. Their album is available on Spotify. …

Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider: A book review

Historical photo of the 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, showing the many patients ill with the flu- U.S. Army photographer

After the wonderful histories of Alfred Crosby and John Barry, readers might wonder if there is truly anything new left to write about the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed between 50 and 100 million people world-wide, at a time when the world’s population was much smaller. Laura Spinney’s detailed, beautifully written and insightful work shows how much study can yet be done on this topic.

As Spinney describes in the opening to her book, in the 1990s much of the writing on this pandemic had been done on Europe and the United States. Of course there were exceptions. In Canada Eileen Pettigrew created a rich narrative of people’s experiences from survivors accounts, while Betty O’Keefe and Ian MacDonald told the story of how medical officer Fred Underhill fought the disease in Vancouver, Canada. There were similar accounts of popular experiences with the pandemic in other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand. But voices in Asia, Latin America and Africa were often not included. Since the 1990s there has been a plethora of work in many different nations, at the same that scientific advances have made it possible to have a much better understanding of the pandemic.

HIV/AIDS, an “Introduction to International Studies” class lecture

Mercator Map of the Congo, 1595, from the Northwestern University Library Maps of Africa collection, accessed through Wikipedia.

I wrote a book, the AIDS Pandemic in Latin America, and have studied public policy and infectious disease for nearly twenty years. Here is a lecture that I wrote (around 2010?) for an “Introduction to International Studies” class. It would need to be updated now; it may also some references to my own experiences, which would need to be removed. But my hope is that it might prove a useful starting place for someone who wants to do a lecture on this topic in a similar class.

Shawn Smallman









Character of the Virus:

  • HIV is not one virus but many
  • The result of more than one introduction into humanity
  • Two main forms: HIV-1; HIV-2
  • Great diversity
  • Difficult to create vaccine
  • 10 year latency
  • initial infection- blood/sex/mother daughter
  • flu-like symptoms
  • body holds the virus in check
  • over time, the virus gradually erodes the immune system’s ability to defend the body
  • the person dies of opportunistic infections
  • there are different latency periods for different people: my Cuban experience
  • medicines don’t work with everyone: my experience in the support group in Sao Paulo
  • most people, the medications are effective
  • recently realized: in a discordant couple medications prevent transmission in 98% of cases
  • means that treatment is prevention
  • heart-breaking: long argued that treatment was too expensive
  • the only economical way to treat the virus was prevention
  • proves to have been a flawed paradigm

Indigenous Futurism with Grace Dillon: A Dispatch 7 podcast

I’ve just published my latest podcast episode of Dispatch 7, which is an interview with Dr. Grace Dillon about Indigenous Futurism. I’ve known Grace for a long time. She kindly wrote the preface to my own book -Dangerous Spirits- on the windigo, an evil spirit in Algonquian narratives and history. I like to think that this preface captured the enthusiasm, breadth of knowledge and humor that Grace shows in this podcast episode.

It’s ironic that in this podcast I briefly brought up the Indigenous knowledge of how to manage a landscape with fire, in order to avoid mega-fires. About a week after our interview much of the West Coast of the United States went up in flames. I am deeply worried for many old friends and former students. I’ve left that short comment in, because the point is still valid. But I would have spoken differently if I had known what was about to happen.

One of the great things about talking with Grace is that she always leaves me with a long list of novels that I want to read. This conversation was no different. Please see the show notes for a long list of novels, graphic novels and programs that Grace recommended. If you are looking for some reading suggestions, this is the right podcast episode for you.

Shawn Smallman

The Murder of Musicians in South East Asia

In my most recent episode of my podcast, Dispatch 7, I interviewed Dr. Priya Kapoor about the murder of musicians in South Asia. Priya was able to put these murders into a larger historical and religious context in the region, while at the same time showing the commonalities between different South Asian states. In the show notes you can find YouTube videos (which she kindly shared with me) of different musicians performing, as well as the citation for her new book chapter on the topic.

I posted the podcast episode last night before I went to bed, and by the morning people had already found and listened to it. I think that this will be a popular episode. In upcoming episodes I will be talking to an expert on Indigenous Science Fiction and a Chinese language learner. Please check back in two weeks for the next episode.

Shawn Smallman

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