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.

cihuateotl

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.


The Aztecs considered childbirth to be a form of battle. They treated women who died in childbirth as fallen warriors (mocinaquetzque, “valiant women”), whose spirits had the privilege of going to Tonatiuh-Ilhuicac, the Heaven of the Sun, along with the souls of male warriors who fell in battle. As the cihuateteo (“divine women”), they accompanied the sun on its journey from noon onwards (the men accompanied the sun for the first half of the day), carrying him on a mantle of quetzal plumes into the western realm Cihuatlampa (“the women’s side”) at sunset.

Cihuatlampa

Cihuatlampa, the western realm, as depicted in the Codex Borgia.
Image: Wikipedia

According to Manuel Aguilar-Moreno (Handbook to Life in the Aztec World)

After four years of joy and happiness, these souls could inhabit clouds. The male warriors were changed into beautiful birds or butterflies that flew freely between heaven and Earth. The women became cihuapipiltin (“noble women”) goddesses and returned to their earthly homes in search of their spinning and weaving instruments. On occasion they were made visible to their husbands.

The cihuateteo were servants of Cihuacoatl (“serpent woman”), who is, among other things, the Aztec goddess of motherhood, midwifery, and fertility. She is also a creator goddess: when Quetzalcoatl gathered up the bones of the ancients from the underworld (by trickery) to create a new race of people, Cihuacoatl put the bones in a bowl and ground them to powder. All the gods shed blood into the bowl, and from the mixture they created humanity. And she is a warrior goddess as well. According to Wikipedia, the cihuateteo are also associated with Tlazolteotl, “goddess of purification, steam bath, midwives, filth, and a patroness of adulterers [no doubt because she purifies sin].”

The cihuateteo were such powerful beings that when a woman died in childbirth, her family had to guard her body carefully to prevent thieves from taking relics: the middle finger of her left hand, or her hair. Warriors believed that if they placed this finger or hair in their shields, it would make them stronger and braver, and blind their enemies.

Much of what I’ve read conflates aspects of the cihuateteo with those of another fearsome being, the tzitzimtl (plural: tzitzimime), and vice-versa. I’m not sure how it properly divides (or even if it does: one source describes the cihuateteo as a kind of tzitzimtl), so I’ve split the descriptions to highlight each being’s most popular aspects. The tzitzimtl will be the next installment of the series. Stay tuned!

References

Trejo Silva, Marcia. Fantasmario Mexicano, Editorial Trillas, 2009 [Spanish]

Vela, Noé and David Bowles. Mexican Bestiary/Bestiario Mexicano, VAO Publishing, 2012 [Spanish/English]

Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel. Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, Oxford University Press, 2007

Bierhorst, John. The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, William Morrow, 1990.

Pohl, John M. D.. “Themes of Drunkenness, Violence, and Factionalism in Tlaxcalan Altar Paintings,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 33 (Spring, 1998), pp. 184-207 [available on JSTOR, if you belong to a subscribing institution or have a (free) MyJSTOR account]

English language and Spanish language Wikipedia

6 thoughts on “Mexican Monstresses: The Cihuateteo

  1. While there were periods in my younger days when I spent my share of time in sexual fantasy, they never included a woman with a skull on her chest. I think I was better for lacking this particular imaginative capacity! 😉 Seriously, your stories do widen my imagination.

  2. Pingback: Mexican Monstresses: The Tzitzimime | Multo (Ghost)

  3. Pingback: Mexican Monstresses: La Mala Hora | Multo (Ghost)

  4. Pingback: Mexican Monstresses: La Matlalcihua | Multo (Ghost)

  5. Pingback: The Many Origins of La Llorona | Multo (Ghost)

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