The Legend of the Priest with no Head

Tales of mysterious encounters with a headless priest in the dark of night are not uncommonly told among the Salvadoran people.  After the time of the Spanish invasion, when conquerors wielding swords or carrying Bibles established their power, there emerged a legend of an imaginary priest who wanders in the streets and pathways as a lost soul. He appears to those who are out walking in the evening. He is searching for his head.  He, or perhaps his head, lets out screams into the night. Those who see him feel cold and are sometimes paralyzed with fear and cannot speak for days.

The story of the Priest with no Head is well-known and frequently told in Tonacatepeque.  Some say the ghost of El Padre sin Cabeza (the headless priest) is real. Some say the story was invented by the church in order to scare indigenous people into becoming Christians. Some who study traditional, Salvadoran tales say this legend was created by enemies of the church.  

A painting of the Padre sin Cabeza (headless priest).
Photo taken in the Casa Cultural in Dulce Nombre de María.

A version of the story from Tonaca tells of the local priest who was supposedly guilty of having love affairs with various maidens in the town.  Unfortunately, on a day like any other, a woman who was a friend to the priest died. The people of the town, with evil motives, attributed the death to the priest. Taking justice into their own hands, they executed the priest. They cut off his head, making sure that his body would forever walk the town in search of his head and in search of his departed lover.  To this day, the headless priest wanders the town as a lost soul, in search of his head. Those who are out late at night can hear the priest scream, as his head searches every corner of the town for his beloved. And this, my friends, is the punishment for a priest who falls in love with the women of the parish.

Photo taken in Tonacatepeque. Here the Padre sin Cabeza
appears with a few of his legendary friends.

It will not surprise you, my dear readers, to learn that my friend Julia has seen the Padre sin Cabeza.  "Supposedly he comes out on the nights without a moon," she tells me. "One time, at the fork in the road near Tonacatepeque, when I was walking later than usual, I thought I saw something sitting in the dirt at the base of the big tree, maybe like a dog. As I looked toward the tree, the figure rose up, and the sight of it sent chills through my body. There was a screech like of an owl. It was...<dramatic pause>...the Priest with no Head." 

Was the priest in this oft-told tale involved in a peasant revolt and killed by authorities at the time? Was the priest a lover who died without confessing his transgressions?  Does the priest move through locked church doors on moonless nights, emerging as a ghost?

Tellers of tales across El Salvador spin their versions of the Padre sin Cabeza.  So, dear readers, if you must step out into the darkness of the night, do so with great care, for you do not want to encounter the Priest with No Head nor to walk in the footsteps of evil.


  1. Loved this story, Thanks for sharing and the research you did!


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