Mexican Monstresses: La Matlalcihua

From Oaxaca, the latest installment of my mini-series, Mexican Monstresses, features la Matlalcihua or Matlalcihuatl (“the ensnaring woman”).

Is the Matlalcihua an evil woman, an evil couple, or a being that can be whatever it needs to be? Like La Mala Hora, la Matlalcihua has many descriptions, depending on whom you talk to.

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Though she is primarily a Oaxacan legend, Hugo Nutini and John Pohl both describe a creature by that name in Tlaxcala: a spirit of the ravines that haunts drunkards and adulterers. This spirit seems to be an agent of karma, as well as one of the causes of murder and violence, even able to possess people and drive them to murder:

People believe that the killer was guided or compelled by an evil supernatural, the devil, a vengeful tetlachihuic, a matlalcihua, or other malevolent being to commit the deed, thus releasing him from responsibility for the act. On the other hand, neither is the victim completely blameless or innocent in his fate, but rather he is regarded as contributing to his own untimely demise. Again under the influence of some evil supernatural, the people believe, he did something to provoke the incident leading to his death. In acts of violence leading to death, there are no fully innocent or fully guilty parties.

— Nutini, Todos Santos in Rural Tlaxcala: A Syncretic, Expressive, and Symbolic Analysis of the Cult of the Dead

In Oaxaca, several descriptions abound. Manuel Martínez Gracida, writing in 1888, described la Matlacigua, or Gobezguia, as a being that can take the form of small child or of a giant, whose “destiny is to pervert and hurt” its victims, afterwards disappearing like a puff of air. It can also take the form of a beautiful woman to seduce men.

Marcia Trejo Silva collected several Oaxacan descriptions of a being or beings that lures its victims into the jungle, after which they are never seen again. Some say that she is a one-footed woman, who leaves a tell-tale trail when she drags her victims away. Some say she’s a beautiful woman in white who walks the streets at midnight, like La Mala Hora. When she comes across a romantically-minded man, she lures him away to his death. Still others say that the Matlalcihua is two people: an ordinary-looking couple. The man kidnaps female victims while the woman captures men. You can tell if a couple is Matlalcihua because they are blond and they chain-smoke.

And finally, some people say that the Matlalcihua is only one being, but it can appear as either a man or woman, depending on the victim. It takes the form of its victim’s beloved, to lure the victim into following it. The victim chases the apparition, losing their sense of direction, stumbling through the bushes and brambles, until they are completely lost. If they do manage to catch their “lover,” the shock of seeing that he or she is really a living skeleton (Whoops! Remember the tzitzimime and La Huesuda?), will drive the victim completely and permanently mad (and come to think of it, that sounds like the cihuateteo).

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Witches vs. Sorcerers: What’s the Difference?

For my Mexican Monstresses series, I’ve been reading a fascinating (but quite academic) book called Bloodsucking Witchcraft (Nutini and Roberts, 1993), about a type of Mexican “vampire” in central Mexico. I put vampire in quotes, because even though this creature sucks blood, both Nutini and Roberts, as well as sources on early Mexican folk belief all the way back to the sixteenth century, refer to it (“her” mostly) as a witch (brujo/a).

A bloodsucking shapeshifter is not what I think of as a witch.

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Source: Wikipedia

And the European conception of a vampire (which is by definition a revenant — that is, the dead revived) isn’t a witch. But the definition that Nutini and Roberts use, and how they distinguish witch (brujo/a) from sorcerer (hechicero/a) calls out some differences I’d never thought about. Before, I’d always considered the terms somewhat interchangeable, and I think in common usage most people do. But the distinction is interesting, and useful.

Note that in the following discussion, I’m referring to witchcraft and sorcery in the folk belief sense of anthropomorphic supernatural beings, not in reference to Wicca or other modern Neopagan religions.

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Mexican Monstresses: La Mala Hora

Installment four of my mini-series, Mexican Monstresses features La Mala Hora (“the evil hour”). Is she a siren, a sheepskin, or a harbinger of death?

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In Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, they tell of La Mala Hora (or La Malora or La Malogra). She usually appears as a beautiful long-haired woman dressed in white, walking along the side of the road at night. Men who encounter her are so taken by her beauty and seductive ways that they follow her mindlessly, with no heed to where she’s leading them.

The lucky few who have met La Mala Hora and lived to tell the tale say that while following her, they lost their sense of direction. If they carried a lamp, it would suddenly stop working. Luckily, these fellows noticed that the lovely lady they were following floated, rather than walked. Or they noticed that her toes were backwards. Those poor victims who don’t look down at La Mala Hora’s feet will follow her to their doom, as she leads them over the edge of a ravine.

And if you see La Mala Hora on the road dressed in black, then look out! She is far more fierce and aggressive in her black-clad form.

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Malinalxochitl and the Founding of Mexico

The third installment in my mini-series Mexican Monstresses — fearsome females of Mexican legend.

Codex Borgia page 55

Detail from the Codex Borgia (not Malinalxochitl, but it seemed to get the idea across).
Source: Wikipedia

Malinalxochitl (“black grass flower”) was the sister of the god Huitzilopochtli, the founder of Mexico. While her brother ruled their people from the heavens, appearing to his priests in dreams, Malinalxochitl guided them in person. She was beautiful and mild-mannered, but also a powerful witch. She could kill a man just by looking at him, secretly eating his heart while he was still alive. Or, just at a glance, she could eat the calf of a person’s leg without his feeling the pain. Or sometimes she would twist a man’s eyesight so that he would hallucinate an enormous beast or some other terrifying thing. She was the kind of witch known in later times as a heart biter (teyollohcuani — more on them in a future post in this series), a calf snatcher, and an eye twister.

At night, when people were asleep, she would pick up a man and carry him outside the camp and drop him in front of a poisonous snake. Scorpions, centipedes, and spiders were also used by her in her evil work, and being a witch, she could transform herself into whatever bird or animal she wished. With all her dangerous powers she insisted on being worshipped as a goddess, and no one dared treat her otherwise.

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Mexican Monstresses: The Tzitzimime

The second installment in my mini-series Mexican Monstresses — fearsome females of Mexican legend: the Tzitzimime.

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Tzitzimitl, from Codex Magliabechano
Image: Wikipedia

The tzitzimime are fearsome, fleshless, skeleton women. They have claws for their hands and feet, and teeth and eyes at all their joints. They wear skirts decorated with skulls and crossbones, and necklaces strung with human hands and hearts. At the end of this age, the tzitzimime will come down from the heavens as terrible beasts, jaguars and dogs, to devour all of humanity before great earthquakes destroy the world.

Their queen is the goddess Itzpapalotl (“obsidian butterfly” or “clawed butterfly”), who rules the heaven for souls who died as infants. They are also associated with the goddess Cihuacoatl (goddess of motherhood and fertility, and queen of the cihuateteo — see my previous post) and in Mayan mythology, with Goddess O (Chac Chel — goddess of floods, storms, childbirth and medicine).

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Mexican Monstresses: The Cihuateteo

I got to wondering recently whether there are any indigenous succubi legends in the Southwest: the New Mexico/Arizona/Texas region, and by extension down into northern Mexico. I still haven’t found any specific to that region, but I did uncover all kinds of dangerous females of legend in Mexican (particularly Aztec) mythology. What I found was interesting enough to put aside the succubi search for a while. “Monstresses” is maybe not quite the right word to describe these beings (terrifying as they are) since many of them are deities, but I liked how the phrase sounded. The first installment of this mini-series: the cihuateteo.

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A cihateteotl (singular of cihuteteo)
Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.
Image: originally from http://www.tenochtitlan.com, retrieved from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine

Beware of the crossroads on a dark night! You may run into the cihuateteo.

The cihuateteo are the deified spirits of women who died in childbirth. On certain nights of the year (their feast days) they haunt the crossroads, seeking victims — especially young ones. On those nights, parents tell their children to hide inside, for the cihuateteo may steal them, leaving only a sacrificial knife in their place. They can cause sickness, paralysis, seizures, or insanity, and sometimes possess their victims’ bodies. They have also been known to seduce men, causing them to commit adultery and other sexual misbehavior. Some say that the legend of La Llorona is based on the cihuateteo.

To placate the cihuateteo, the Aztecs made them offerings on their feast days, either at their altars or at the crossroads: bread in the shape of butterflies or lightning, of little tamales called xucuichtlamatzoalli, and toasted corn called ízquitl.

Cihuateteo have pale skeletal faces, chalk-white limbs, and claws for hands. They wear gold earrings and horned headdresses, rippling black blouses, white sandals, and skirts embroidered in many colors.


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The Story of a Mussalmani

Last year, while looking up folktales related to the Punjabi winter solstice festival Lohri, I came across the legend of the bandit Dulla Bhatti. Dulla Bhatti was a 16th century “Punjabi Robin Hood” who led a rebellion against the Mughal emperor Akbar. He robbed the Mughal officials who collected taxes and tributes for the emperor, and redistributed the money to the poor. One of the tales told of him is that after a Mughal soldier raped a young Hindu woman, Dulla Bhatti — a Muslim — took her in because no one else would. He arranged her marriage to a Hindu man, gave her a dowry, and even officiated the wedding in as close to an approximation to a Hindu wedding ceremony as he could manage. The stories of Dulla Bhatti are linked to Lohri; you can read my take on that relationship here.

Why am I bringing Dulla Bhatti up now, in the middle of June? Because as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore liked to play with folklore and fairy tale. “The Hungry Stones” is one example that comes to mind; there’s also “Once There Was a King,” “A Fanciful Story” (called “A Kingdom of Cards” in this online translation), and “The Wedding Garland” (“Malyadan” in Bengali — I can’t find it in English online), all of which play with folktale tropes and structure, sometimes explicitly, sometimes more subtly. Tagore’s last short story draft, from about a month and half before his death, is perhaps another example, one with some similarity to the Dulla Bhatti story I mentioned above. In the Oxford Press translation Selected Short Stories, it’s called “The Story of a Mussalmani.”

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On Reading Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

My readers may laugh at my foolishness, but my heart was full of adoration. I offered my worship to the pure joy of living, which is God’s own life.

Up until recently, the only piece by Rabindranath Tagore I knew was the lovely ghost-story/fairy tale “The Hungry Stones”. Ever since I first read it, I’d wanted to read more, yet for whatever reason never got around to it.

Then the other week while wandering the stacks of the San Francisco Main Library, I tripped over the Oxford Press collection Selected Short Stories, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri. This was a great place to start; the translations seem excellent (of course, I can’t read the original Bengali to compare), and the volume has an great introduction, with enough information about Tagore’s life and history to give his stories context. All the stories have extensive footnotes, to explain details that would be obvious to a South Asian reader, but not necessarily to a western one: points of Indian culture and history, literary and folkloric references.

I binge-read the whole thing. Then I found other collections on Project Gutenberg, and read more.

There’s all kinds of nerdy pseudo-intellectual things I could say about these stories. I could talk about how I love the way Tagore weaves Indian folklore and mythology through his stories (right down to the choice of characters’ names). Or about his criticism of contemporary Hindu society, with its caste-system and problematic attitude towards women (the editor has a great quote: “a society that cannot protect its women but is inhumanly insistent on their purity”). About the gentle, even sympathetic way he presents his flawed, weak characters — without ever leaving a doubt that, yes, some of them are very flawed indeed.

All of these things are true, and they’re points that I admire. But none of that really describes how I feel. I loved these stories. Some of them made me cry. But to say that isn’t enough. I’m an analytical person by profession, and I have a concrete viewpoint by nature. I often have a hard time describing something as abstract as my reaction to something that I’ve read and loved. So I’ll just quote this, from “The Victory:”

[The poet] took his seat. His hearers trembled with the sadness of an indefinable delight, immense and vague, and they forgot to applaud him.

That’s kind of how I feel about these stories. Often so sad, always so beautiful. Just read them.


Here are some of my favorites (that I could find online):

  • The Kabuliwala: I love this story.
  • The Hungry Stones: Of course.
  • The Renunciation: Pointed attack on the caste-system. Also one of the few instances I can think of in Tagore’s short stories where the heroine’s male ally stands up to society and supports the heroine.
  • The Wife’s Letter: A biting picture of woman’s position in the Hindu society of Tagore’s time. It’s a powerful story, though I like the translation in Selected Short Stories better.

Enjoy.


Image: Rabindranath Tagore, painted by his nephew, painter and cartoonist Gaganendranath Tagore.

Share and Share Alike: A Russian Folktale

Once upon a time there was a young man — let’s call him Ivan — who decided to go out in the world to seek his fortune. When he told his parents of his decision, his father gave Ivan his blessing, and some money for the trip. Ivan used part of this money to buy two fine horses, then off he went.

After traveling a while, he stopped to spend the night at a roadside inn. The inn wasn’t in very good repair, and the woman who ran the inn seemed troubled. As he ate his supper, Ivan noticed some surly-looking men arrive. They peered suspiciously around the place, and spoke to the innkeeper in rude, even threatening tones. After they left, Ivan asked the woman if anything was wrong. She burst into tears.

“My husband died two years ago,” she told Ivan. “But when he died he owed money to those men you saw — and to many other people, too. I can’t pay them back, and so they harass me, and curse my husband’s name — and curse me, too! I don’t know what to do.”

“How much did your husband owe?” Ivan asked.

The widow named a sum. It was exactly the amount of money Ivan had. So Ivan offered to pay the innkeeper’s debts.

Design of hundred hryvnias bill 1918

Design of hundred hryvnias bill (Ukraine), Heorhiy Narbut, 1918. Source: Wikiart

The widow was so happy! The next day, when more creditors came by to bother the innkeeper, Ivan paid them off. Word got around, and soon all the dead man’s creditors arrived. Ivan gave each of them their money.

But the widow hadn’t calculated correctly; she’d forgotten a couple of creditors, who of course came by just as Ivan had paid out his last ruble. So Ivan offered them each one of his horses as payment, which they took.

Now the widow and the inn were secure; but Ivan was broke. Should he go back home? What would his father say? Ivan got back on the road, trying to decide what to do.

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Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan

What is not a dream? Who will not end up as a skeleton? We appear as skeletons covered with skin — male and female — and lust after each other. When the breath expires, though, the skin ruptures, sex disappears, and there is no more high or low. Underneath the skin of the person we fondle and caress right now is nothing more than a set of bare bones. Think about it — high and low, young and old, male and female, all are the same.”

–Ikkyū (“Skeletons,” 1457) Translated by John Stevens

 

I was lucky enough to catch the Asian Art Museum’s Seduction exhibit before it closed about a week ago. The exhibit was a view into Japan’s “Floating World,” in particular the Yoshiwara District of Edo, as represented not only in prints and booklets, but in textiles, too. Everything was lovely, but the piece that caught my interest most strongly was Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s diptych Monk Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan:

IkkyuAndHellCourtesan

Monk Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ca. 1845. (Click to enlarge).
Image photographed from the Seduction catalog two-page spread; I couldn’t find this online, and I couldn’t bring myself to rip apart my catalog for a better photo.

Those skeletons! That the piece itself (especially with that title) should get my attention is no surprise, if you read my blog. The story that the diptych refers to worth repeating, too.

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