The second installment in my mini-series Mexican Monstresses — fearsome females of Mexican legend: the Tzitzimime.
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).
In Aztec legend, our current era, known as the age of the Fifth Sun, will end on the last day of an Aztec century (a cycle of 52 years). On the evening of the last day of every century, the people extinguish all the lights in the city, and gather atop a hill near Ixtapalapa to watch the star Yohualtechtli — according to Franke Neumann, probably the star Aldebaran, or one of the Pleiades. If at midnight Yohualtechtli passes along its course in the middle of the sky, then the world won’t end, and the sun will rise again. But if the star doesn’t pass along its course, that means the end of the world has come. The sun will be destroyed — some say attacked by the tzitimime, some say destroyed by earthquakes, others that the god Tezcotilipoc will steal the sun — and the tzitzimime will come down to devour us.
The legends also say that once upon a time all the gods lived in a paradise called Tamoanchan, ruled by the god Tonacatecuhtli and his wife Tonacacihua. Tamoanchan is the place where Quetzalcoatl and Cihuacoatl created humanity (see my previous post). In Tamoanchan was a garden of lush trees, with beautiful flowers. Several of the gods — Mixcoatl, Itzpapalotl, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, and Mictlantecuhtli, among others — wanted to eat the delicious-looking flowers, so they ripped the branches off the trees to get them. But when they did this, the trees bled human blood! Tonacatecuhtli got so angry about the injury to the trees that he expelled the guilty gods from Tamoanchan, and they became the Tzitzimime.
As I mentioned in the last post, accounts of the tzitzimime have a lot in common with those of the child-stealing, crossroads-haunting cihuateteo, and many of the stories and accounts conflate their attributes (notice that the statue of the cihateteotl that I used to illustrate the last post looks a lot like my description of a tzitzimitl). The cihuateteo are goddesses of twilight, because they accompany the sun to the underworld at the end of the day; the tzitzimitl come out during solar eclipses, because they gain power in the absence of the sun (and will attack the sun at the end of the world). Both sets of deities are associated with the snake-woman goddess Cihuacoatl, with childbirth and midwives, and they seem to share feast days. According to Wikipedia, the goddess Itzpapalotl was a cihateteotl as well as a tzitzimitl. Legends about Itzpapalotl say that she could appear either as a skeleton woman, or as a beautiful, seductive woman dressed as a lady of the Mexican court. She would paint her face with white powder and decorate it with strips of red rubber, and she has jaguar’s claws for hands and eagle’s claws for feet. All of this also bears some similarity to descriptions of the cihuateteo.
Both the tzitzimime and the cihuateteo, and their patron goddesses, represent the duality of life and death, of creation and destruction, rather like Kali and Durga in Hindu mythology. You’ll recognize some of their attributes in many of the other legends of fearsome females that I’ll feature in the rest of this series.
According to Roldán Peniche Barerra, the Mayans have a more down-to-earth legend about another skeletal woman, la Huesuda (“the bony woman”). La Huesuda appeared to be an ordinary woman and wife, but at night, beneath a wooden cross, she shed all her flesh and tendons and became a skeleton. As a skeleton she would go out and do evil deeds — what deeds, I don’t know, but I imagine that she lured men on the road to horrible death, or stole and ate children. It would fit. At dawn, she would return to where she’d left her flesh, put it on and turn back into an ordinary woman.
This went one for quite a while, until her husband finally noticed that she snuck out at night after she thought he was asleep. So one night he pretended to fall asleep, and when she slipped out of the house he followed her to the wooden cross. There he saw her transform herself into a skeleton, and witnessed the terrible crimes that she committed.
So the next night when he followed her, he brought a container of salt. After she’d left her flesh and tendons beneath the cross, he crept up and covered them with the salt. When she returned at dawn, she couldn’t put her flesh back on, and now must wander the earth for the rest of her life in her skeleton form.
Does she still do her evil deeds, I wonder? I bet she hangs out at crossroads, too. Do you travel at night? If so, I would avoid mysterious women along the side of the road, if I were you.
Trejo Silva, Marcia. Fantasmario Mexicano, Editorial Trillas, 2009 [Spanish]
Peniche B., Roldan. Bestiario Mexicano, Panorama Editorial, 1987 [Spanish]
Pohl, John M. D.. “Themes of Drunkenness, Violence, and Factionalism in Tlaxcalan Altar Paintings,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 33, Pre-Columbian States of Being (Spring, 1998), pp. 184-207
Taube, Karl Andreas. “The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan,” Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, No. 32 (1992)
Neumann, Franke J. “The Dragon and the Dog: Two Symbols of Time in Nahuatl Religion,” Numen, Vol. 22, Fasc. 1 (Apr., 1975), pp. 1-23
English language and Spanish language Wikipedia