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.
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).
Modern accounts of la Matlalcihua favor the Woman in White version. A Oaxacan tourist website describes her as a beautiful woman dressed in white who walks along the streets late at night and near dawn, near the river that crosses through the town of Miahuatlán de Porfirio Díaz. She appears to drunks and solitary lovers, whom she flirts with and entices to follow her. Her bewitched victims follow her into patches of huizache (needle bush*), a spiny, odoriferous plant. The scratches that the victims get from walking into the huizache snap them out of their trance, leaving them puzzled as to how they got there.
And they can never remember afterwards exactly how she looked, only that she was very beautiful.
Here’s a folktale about la Matlacihua (or la bandolera, as she’s apparently sometimes called), as told by Claudia Padilla (in Spanish), on her Facebook page SOY MI FAN, loosely translated by me:
The Legend of la Matlacihua
Once upon a time in the town of Santa Maria Sola de Vega, Oaxaca, there was a young man named Jose Antonio who really liked the ladies. Ugly, pretty, fat, thin, tall, short, single, married or widowed — for Jose Antonio it was all the same. He was tall, fair and graceful, with a thick well trimmed mustache; he liked his women plentiful and his mezcal by the bottle.
His father was a simple cowherd, who when he saw his son in trouble would say to him in a stern voice, “Some day, Jose Antonio, God will punish you for deceiving women.”
“Look at you! You’re never at home, you don’t work, and one of these days you’ll have a terrible scare. You go out at night and return at dawn — something will happen to you. Take care, son, and always pray to God to protect you!”
“Yes Papa! But don’t you start on the same old ‘You should stop making love to the women’ — after all, I am a man.”
And Jose Antonio laughed at his father, then sauntered out of the house, leaving his poor father talking to himself.
But then one day Jose Antonio fell in love! He stopped making love to every woman who passed, but he didn’t stop his hard-drinking lifestyle. One night he got drunk, and wandered home in the rain at 3 in the morning. On the road home he saw what he thought was his girlfriend, dressed in a white dress that showed off her figure, with her long hair loose and falling down past her waist.
She smiled and beckoned to him, and he followed, never realizing that she was the matlacihua, or la bandolera! Never realizing, that is, until his drunkenness wore off and he saw her true, deathlike, skeletal form. Then he began to scream.
But it was too late. La bandolera dragged him up the hill, beat him and scratched him until he was half crazy from pain and terror. The workers from a nearby hacienda, frightened by Jose Antonio’s screams, ran to their master. The Old Man recognized the terrified voice behind the screams.
“It’s that bastard Jose Antonio! It sounds like he’s being hacked to death by machete! Quickly, let’s go find him.”
They all went out searching with lighted torches, combing the entire plain without finding him. Finally, they climbed the hill. As they climbed, they realized that the screams were coming from a high crag above them that was covered with spiny cactus. Only the bravest of the men dared to scale the steep cliff, and when they reached the peak, they found Jose Antonio, completely naked and covered with deep scratches, as if a tiger had raked his entire body with its claws. They took him back down the hill, back home to his father.
After this experience, Jose Antonio no longer wanted to go out with the girls —- not the ones who tried to flirt with him, not even his beautiful girlfriend —- for fear that she was really la Matlacihua in disguise. He told everyone that la Matlacihua had the face of Death, and that she told him that she was punishing him for playing with women, and if he kept on with his behavior, she would come back — and this time she would take him with her.
At night, he screamed like a crazy man that he saw a woman dressed in white who was calling him to her side to love her.
His father didn’t know what to do, seeing his son suffer so badly. Finally one night he went out searching. He had to find this evil woman, la Matlacihua or not. The full moon lit up the whole plain as he walked the roads, hoping to meet her. He walked until nearly dawn without ever finding her, because la Matlacihua only preys on men who are drunk.
Exhausted, Jose Antonio’s father returned home. On arriving at his house, he saw a woman outside calling to his son, and he fired his gun at her — but the gun jammed. The woman suddenly disappeared, and then his gun began to fire, but it was too late. The woman was gone.
So Jose Antonio’s father ran like mad for the church, and brought back the priest to bless the house and Jose Antonio so that la Matlacihua would leave them in peace. And so Jose Antonio slowly recovered, with the help of his father and the village priest.
*Spanish language Wikipedia says that the term huizache can refer to any of several plants; English-language Wiktionary picked the needle bush, or sweet acacia (Acacia farnesiana), which is native to Mexico and Central America. The corresponding Wikipedia entry didn’t say anything about the plant being “smelly” (though its flowers are used to make perfume), but it certainly is spiny.
Trejo Silva, Marcia. Fantasmario Mexicano, Editorial Trillas, 2009 [Spanish]
Martínez Gracida, Manuel. El rey Cosijoeza y su familia: Reseña historica y legendaria de los ultimos soberanos de Zachila, Oficina tip. de la Secretaría de fomento, 1888
Nutini, Hugo Gino. Todos Santos in Rural Tlaxcala: A Syncretic, Expressive, and Symbolic Analysis of the Cult of the Dead, Princeton University Press, 2014
Pohl, John M. D. “Themes of Drunkenness, Violence, and Factionalism in Tlaxcalan Altar Paintings,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 33 (Spring, 1998)
Padilla, Claudia. Mitos y Leyendas mexicanas – Leyenda de la Matlazihua (as of August 24, 2015)
The Harlot and the Giant. William Blake. Source: WikiArt
Woman Standing by a Tree. Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Source: WikiArt
Young Woman on the Shore. Edvard Munch (1896). Source: WikiArt