Las Doce Verdades del Mundo, Part I

Preparing for la limpia with copal, egg, and prayer.

While the Pater Noster, Credo, Ave Maria, and Gloria are commonly used in curanderismo, for the limpia one of the most beloved prayers is Las Doce Verdades del Mundo,  or the ‘Twelve Truths of the World’.

This prayer is common in the southwest and borderlands, heavily popular in New Mexico and Texas, but seems present almost universally in the Chicano diaspora and Mexican borderland curanderismo. It may well be as used in in Central and Southern Mexico, I have been told it is more common to find the more canonical Padre Nuestro, Ave Maria, and Credo, but do not know from personal experience.

The prayer is also found in Spain (often under the name Las doce palabras retorneadas - The Twelve Reversed Words), in slightly alternate versions. The striking thing about the Castillian versions is that it explains the truths in slightly more detail than the extant Mexican and Chicano versions. Most people involved in Mexican Folk Catholicism are familiar with this prayer, but not as many people are seemingly able to describe everything mentioned. One of my favorite parts of this prayer is that there are striking visualizations possible as you call the Holy Forces to the aid the healing of the client. Not to mention the various forms of its performance - some which hint at an old practice in curanderismo that is not done nearly as much anymore.

Espinosa, in ‘The Folklore of Spain in the American Southwest’, gives evidence of its place in a larger folk tradition of numerical religious formula spanning Eurasia, and gives exemplars of similar formulas, both vulgar and Christian. He cites formulas of Persian origin in the tale of Ghôst i Fryâno, from the Book of Arda Virai, which contains both a narrative story as well as the encoded doctrinal numerical series, and also quickly looks at the Green Grow the Rushes O for its easily drawn comparisons to Las Doce Verdades. 

Green Grow the Rushes O is an English counting song, and brought increasing attention due to its mention by Robert Cochrane in his letters to Joe Wilson. Cochrane’s version is not outwardly Christian, but there exists a unique line of interpretation available to those whose dual-observance does not preclude paganism from Christianity or vice versa. There are however much more overtly Christian versions of the same song. This is beyond the scope of this post, but it (Green Grow) continues to interest me.

Espinosa’s proposal is that the formula changes merely to suit the culture and religion of the people who preserve it. Interestingly, he does allow for concurrent independent development of similar numerical formula in pagan Celtic and Scandinavian societies, so it should be noted that this notion of ‘larger folk tradition’ is not necessarily related to each other. To which I respond, sarcastically, “Because, you know, many cultures have numbers.” But it is still important to be said. Common occurence does not mean common origin. Necessarily.

Espinosa gives an example of a similar prayer, perhaps even source prayer, in medieval Latin:

Unus est Deus,
Duo sunt testaments,
Tres sunt Patriarchae, 
Quattuor Evanagelistae, 
Quinque libri Moysis, 
Sex sunt hidriae positae in Cana Galilieae, 
Septem sacramentam, 
Octo beatitudines, 
Novem angelorum chori,
Decem mandata Dei,
Undecim stellae a Josepho visae,
Duodecima Aspostolo.

One is God
Two are the Testaments
Three are the Patriarchs
Four, the Evangelists
Five, the Books of Moses
Six are the wine jugs of the Marriage Feast at Cana
Seven, the sacraments
Eight, the beatitudes
Nine, the choirs of angels
Ten, the Commandments of God
The eleven stars seen by Joseph
Twelve, the Apostles

But of interest to me is this passage: “[it] is considered in Hispanic tradition as an elementary doctrinal guide, as a powerful prayer, and sometimes as an exorcism or superstitious prayer. Some have heard it and fear it as a witch prayer. In the sixteenth century a Portuguese woman accused of being a witch, Anna Martins, declared before a Christian tribunal that it was one of her favorite prayers.” (Espinosa, The Folklore of Spain in the American Southwest)

It is a prayer still associated mainly with curanderas and abuelas with eggs or lemons seeking to heal their clients and family. While it is not unknown for curanderas to be accused of brujeria, ultimately the expression of truth found in the prayer is in the heart of each person who recites it. 

A common standard form given by Trotter & Chavira in ‘Curanderismo: Mexican Folk Healing’ is:

De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme una, la santa casa de Jerusalén.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme dos, las dos tablas de Moisés.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme tres, la santa Trinidad.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme cuatro, los cuatro evangelios.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme cinco, las cinco llagas.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme seis, los seis candelabros.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme siete, las siete palabras.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme ocho, las ocho angustias.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme nueve, los nueve meses de Maria.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme diez, los diez mandamientos.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme once, las once mil vírgenes,
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme doce, las doce apóstoles que acompanaron a nuestro Señor en la cruz. Amén. 

and in English:

Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me one, the holy house of Jerusalem.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me two, the two tablets of Moses.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me three, the Holy Trinity.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me four, the four evangelists.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me five, the five wounds.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me six, the six candelabras.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me seven, the seven words.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me eight, the eight anguishes.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me nine, the nine months of Mary.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me ten, the Ten Commandments.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me eleven, the eleven thousand virgins.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me twelve, the twelve apostles who accompanied our Lord on the cross. Amen.


This is a distilled version compared to what I usually have heard. In addition to the leading prayers (often a modified Gloria/Glory Be, or Credo/ Apostle’s Creed), there are several variants; these can mostly be broken down into listing, reverse order, alternate associations, alternate wordings, method of delivery, and the mysterious ‘Thirteenth Truth’.

Listing. A common variant from the version Trotter and Chavira give includes layering of responses, similar to English counting games such as ‘The House that Jack Built’, ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’, and ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. When the prayer is done this way, when you get to the end you have a long list of the twelve truths. At six, for example, you’d have: 

De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme seis, los seis candelabros, las cinco llagas, los cuatro evangelios, la santa Trinidad, las dos tablas de Moisés, la santa casa de Jerusalén.

Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me six, the six candelabras, the five wounds, the four evangelists, the Holy Trinity, the two tablets of Moses, the holy house of Jerusalem.

and they would keep adding as you go through each number. Often longer variants of each line are shortened after initial introduction as well, i.e. los nueve meses de Maria  becomes los nueve meses in subsequent listings.

Reverse Order. As much as you find the growing list added on, you also find people who do the prayer in reverse order. Starting at twelve truths, and going down to one. I have never heard it done this way where the whole list wasn’t said each time. This makes sense as the reason for reversing makes sense more as an agglutinating list, as the huge list at the beginning gets shorter and shorter as you say the prayer, which has a very centering affect on both client and healer. This effect was called by one curandera I studied with, la construcción del templo de Jerusalén (building the Temple of Jerusalem). I particularly like this metaphor, as it has a truth in it relevant to Masons, and centers us in a single focus point.

The common peninsular name of Las doce palabras retorneadas may imply this order is preferred, but as older Latin exemplars list in ascending numerical order, I am not convinced either way. It seems to be a personal choice, either based on adherence to tradition or added metaphysical implication.

Alternate associations. There are three common alternate ‘truths’, in eight, seven, and one. Eight where you find los ocho coros (eight choirs). Seven is often given as los siete gozos (the seven joys) or los siete dolores (the seven sorrows),  and one can alternately be God, Christ Who came down to bless the Holy House of Jerusalem. This last modification is reflected by many who pray the Twelve Truths even if the primary association is la santa casa de Jerusalén, as many say a longer la santa casa de Jerusalén donde Jesucristo crucificado vive y reina por siempre jamás, or some similar variant, which ties into the next variant, Alternate wordings.

Alternate Wordings. Through oral transmission and personal taste, there exist many alternate versions of each phrase. While some prefer the shortest answer to the question posed by each number, some versions are much longer, as evidenced by the riddle of One posed above. Another example:

De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme seis, los seis candelabros.   

Which you will also hear as:

De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme seis, los seis candelabros que arden en al altar para celebrar la Misa Mayor.

Method of Delivery. Some, when saying the prayer, merely call out question and response as one line. Some us the formal decidme, others the informal digame or digas. Commonly the phrase hermano bueno (good brother) is used to address the client, usually with the informal, so that each line reads:

De las doce verdades del mundo, hermano bueno, quiero que me digas
(Of the Twelve Truths of the World, Good Brother, I’d like you to tell me....)

What interests me about hermano bueno is that it hints at a delivery style I’ve only seen a couple of times, where the curandero takes the place of the Devil, often referred to as El Amigo (the Friend), testing and thus re-centering the client’s faith. In the folk tales where Las doce verdades is used successfully against the Devil, often Satan or his minions call out to the person as ‘My Friend’ or ‘Good Brother’. In a few other instances, it is actually the guardian angel that is asking the person for the truths, acting as a shield, or amparo, against the devil. In the instances where I’ve seen this performed this way the lead healer assumes the role of the Devil/El Amigo, and the assistant and any present respond for and with the client, and were referred to as el coro (the choir - perhaps, without too much stretching, a choir of Angels?). The whole room buzzes when delivery is done in this way; it is a wonderful experience.

Watching my mentor assume this role, she would then immediately recite a rosary after the client left, and she would cough up a dark liquid that she spat into Holy Water, and discarded. This she called la sombra de ihiyote, (the shadow of ihiyotl, the Liver Soul), and explained that she always found it easier to spit it up quickly after the cleaning rather than not. This cries out to me of profound mystery - and echoes in some way the sin-eating practice of the Britain.

The Thirteenth Truth. In some versions, you will find a thirteenth truth asked and answered, and only ever after all the other truths have been recited. It is given as thus:

De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme trece, los trece rayos del sol conduzcan a las brujas y a las hechiceras a los infiernos y así sea Dios Padre, Dios Hijo, Dios Espíritu Santo por los siglos de los siglos.
Of the Twelve Truths of the World, tell me thirteen, the Thirteen Rays of the Sun that send witches and wizards to hell, so it shall be God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. 

This addition is quite telling given both the prayers used in exorcisms and its reputation as a witches’ prayer. Perhaps this last question and answer is a means of combatting any ill thought toward the reciter, by invoking the Celestial Warrior of Heaven in the form of the Sun (which itself can either be through a Catholic or folk-Catholic lens...)? It is certainly an effective punctuation mark, and when delivered it again recenters the client one last time on their faith as embodied within their physical being, the source of balance and health in curanderismo.

It is also interesting, going back to Cochrane and ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’, that in the version he originally gave to Joe Wilson, there is also a Thirteeth Question - but no answer given. A Mystery indeed.

Continued in Part II


  1. This reminds me of the Jewish folk song "Who Knows One"

  2. This is legitimate. Surprisingly


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