The Tlahuelpuchi Epidemic

In this installment of my Mexican Monstresses series, folklore meets real life when the bloodsucking tlahuelpuchi strikes a small rural community.

800px MalincheMatlalcueitl

December 8, 1960: an unseasonably cold night in San Pedro Xolotla, a rural, primarily Nahuatl-speaking community beneath La Malintzi volcano in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala. Filemón and Francisca, a couple in their early thirties, were working late carding wool and making yarn; like most households in the community, they supported themselves with their weaving. They lived in one room of Filemón’s parents’ extended household with their four children: two boys and a girl between 5 and 14 years old, and a seven month old daughter, Cristina. Around midnight, Filemón’s older brother returned from Mexico City, where he had gone to deliver an order of sarapes. The three of them had coffee and chatted, then all retired for the night.

Filemón, exhausted, fell asleep immediately, but Francisca gave baby Cristina one last breastfeeding. Then she put Christina back on her petate (sleeping mat) before going to bed herself.

Two or three hours later, Francisca awoke and saw an intense light moving around outside the window. She tried to get up to investigate, but her body felt heavy and unresponsive, and she soon fell back asleep. A little later she half-awoke again. A strange mist filled the room, and out of it materialized a chicken-like creature, blue and red. Again she tried to get up, but the mist overcame her. That’s all she remembered.

At six AM Filemón awoke and noticed that the door to the room was partially open. Then he saw baby Cristina lying not in her petate, but on the floor some yards away. He got up to investigate. Francisca was still fast asleep.

It took several minutes for Filemón to wake Francisca from her deep slumber with the terrible news: Cristina was dead. The skin around her chest and neck was mottled and purplish, her chest covered in scratches. She had been sucked to death by that shapeshifting vampire known as the tlahuelpuchi.

And on that morning of December 9, six other mothers were shaken out of trance-like sleeps to a similar discovery: a still, tiny body, sometimes an open door. Seven dead babies. It was a tlahuelpuchi epidemic.

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The bloodsucking shapeshifter tlahuelpuchi (“fiery red smoke”) or teyollocuani (“eater of hearts”) looks like an ordinary person and lives in an ordinary family, but she (it’s usually a she) must suck human blood at least once a month to survive. She hunts in the form of an animal, usually a turkey or buzzard. Malinalxochitl, the sorceress sister of Mexico’s founding god Huitzilopochtli, was a teyollocuani.

Tlahuelpuchis prefer the blood of babies between two and ten months old, and they hunt the most in cold or rainy weather. In Tlaxcalan lore, they strike most often in December, January, and February (the coldest months), and in June, July, and August (the wettest months, and also cold). They hunt whenever they are hungry, but prefer to strike between midnight and three AM. To hunt, they fly from village to village as a turkey or a buzzard, or as a flying fireball in the night. They might wander through a village as a donkey, scouting for victims. You can tell if an animal is a tlahuelpuchi by its glowing aura, and the faint smell of blood.

After a tlahuelpuchi picks a victim, she waits outside for a good opportunity to sneak into the house. Some people say that to enter the house, the tlahuelpuchi must fly over the roof in the shape of a cross: first east to west, and then north to south. Others say that she can sneak into a keyhole or other small opening as an insect, or as a paralyzing mist that knocks out everyone in the room. Once inside, she turns back into a turkey and sucks her victim’s blood with her long needle-like tongue. When she escapes, she leaves the victim’s body by the door. The position of the body, along with the purple mottled bruises around the victim’s chest, upper back, or neck, are the signs of a tlahuelpuchi attack.

You can try to protect yourself or your baby from the tlahuelpuchi: leave a sharp object under the crib, a knife, scissors, needles or pins. Make a cross out of safety pins on your garments; put a mirror or dirty shorts or a soiled diaper near the bed. But none of these are foolproof: only onions or garlic are guaranteed to ward off an attack. You can wrap them in a tortilla and tuck them into blankets or clothing. But no one does this, except in times of crisis; it’s too much trouble, they say.

Garlic cloves and knife on the corner of a table jpg Blog

You never know who the tlahuelpuchi in your midst might be. They don’t know themselves, until they hit puberty and begin to crave blood. They can be either sex, but are mostly women — the meaner, more bloodthirsty ones are always women, they say. A tlahuelpuchi can’t kill her own kin (including family by marriage) unless that family member tries to give her identity away. In turn, a family member who is responsible for the death of a tlahuelpuchi will turn into a tlahuelpuchi themselves. So it’s in everyone’s interest to stay quiet.

There are clues. Though a tlahuelpuchi can hunt or shapeshift anytime she needs to, once a month she must go through a ritual. After midnight, she lights a fire in the kitchen with certain types of wood and leaves that have magical properties. She walks over the fire three times, first north to south, than east to west, chanting incantations as she does so. Then she sits on the fire facing north. Her upper body separates from her legs and feet, then turns into a bird and flies out into the night, leaving her legs behind. If the tlahuelpuchi doesn’t find a victim by daybreak, she will die.

When she returns home, she sits back on the fire to fit the two halves of her body back together. After a tlahuelpuchi has done this too many times, the two halves of her body may not fit perfectly back together, and so some people say that you can tell a tlahuelpuchi because she walks with a limp. Others say that tlahuelpuchi have one underdeveloped leg; still other say that they are fat from all the blood they drink, or that they smell faintly of blood. Some claim that you can tell a tlahuelpuchi because she has squinty eyes, a long nose, and a squeaky voice.

In the stress and terror of a rash of deaths, sometimes the people will accuse someone in the neighborhood of being the tlahuelpuchi. That person is executed: stoned or clubbed to death, their body left in a ravine. This is rare, and fortunately didn’t happen in San Pedro Xolotla. Anthropologist Hugo Nutini had been conducting field studies nearby at the time of the epidemic, and stayed to observe the community in the aftermath of the tragedy. He posited that the close kinship ties in the community (everyone belonged to one of only four extended families or clans) prevented any accusations, since tlahuelpuchi can’t attack family.

So what killed these babies really?

When traditional Tlaxcalans (which included almost everyone before 1960) verbalize the tlahuelpuchi complex, they are in fact presenting an explanation of why and under what conditions infants before the age of one die, given specified circumstances…. It is almost as if by design that the accent of the ideology and belief system was place on explaining and rationalizing the death of infants as being beyond the control of the actors involved.

— Hugo Nutini, Bloodsucking Witchcraft: An Epistemological Study of Anthropomorphic Supernaturalism in Rural Tlaxcala

Over the next decade, Nutini studied 47 suckings in depth, bringing in a doctor to examine the bodies, or examining them himself. While the medical professionals wouldn’t speak definitively about cause of death without an autopsy (and naturally, there weren’t any), the purplish mottling and bruising of the victims’ bodies provided a strong clue. The victims hadn’t lost blood, but oxygen: asphyxiation.

Most of the babies probably died accidentally. It was customary for mothers in the region to feed their babies while lying on their right side. On a cold night, a mother would likely feed her baby while lying on her sleeping mat wrapped in warm blankets. Late at night, if she’s tired, it would be easy for her to fall asleep in this position with the baby still at her breast, and it would be easy for her to lean onto her nursing baby’s face, and well….

Reclining mother and child jpg Blog

Or, on a cold night, it might be tempting for a mother to not get out from under the warm blankets into the unheated room (this is rural Tlaxcala in the 1960’s, remember) to put the baby back in its crib or sleeping mat. She might decide to keep the baby with her while she slept. But if while sleeping, the mother rolls the wrong way….

And even if a mother braves the cold and puts the baby in its own bed, the danger isn’t gone. The room is unheated, the baby is fragile. On a cold winter night, a mother would want to bundle her child in heavy blankets or extra clothing. If the baby is on a sleeping mat, the mother would probably bolster it with more blankets to keep it from rolling off, and to protect the baby from dogs or chickens or other domestic animals that might get into the room. But if a blanket should fall over the baby’s face, or the baby should roll into a position that puts it face-into a blanket or other fabric….

And so the tlahuelpuchi strikes in the late hours of cold nights. She sucks young babies, ones too little to cry out or move much, who might not be able to push a blanket out of their face. She leaves marks on their bodies: purple, yellow, and bruise-like. Marks that are consistent with the signs of suffocation.

And perhaps not all the deaths were accidental. Parents with many children might feel they can’t afford another. A husband away all the time as a migrant laborer, as many men in San Pedro Xolotla were, might wonder if his wife’s youngest is really his. All it takes is a hand over a tiny face….

There are other tensions that could lead to infanticide. I was recently reading Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore; one of his oft-returned to themes was the position of women in strict, traditional Hindi households. Once a woman married she was the property of her husband and his family. In very strict families, she couldn’t return to her own parents even if something went very wrong with the marriage: they’d given her away, they weren’t taking her back. In an extended family living situation, a wife was absolutely subject to her mother-in-law, the domestic head of the household. A woman’s future happiness could depend more on her relationship with her mother-in-law than on her relationship with her husband. And so it was in rural Tlaxcala as well.

María tried hard to placate her disagreeable mother-in-law Juana, but this couldn’t make up for that fact that María was older than her husband (“too old” according to Juana) and only had daughters — a wifely failure in a patriarchal society. The more María tried to defer to Juana, the more abusive her mother-in-law got. Finally, after enduring an afternoon of especially vicious verbal abuse, María snapped and let her mother-in-law have it, very nearly striking her — the other women of the family had to hold her back. María left the house for the rest of the day to cool down. That night, Juana inexplicably insisted on sleeping in the room where María, her husband, and family slept. That night, the tlahuelpuchi sucked María’s baby daughter.

By Nutini’s account, several other women who had seen the altercation clearly suspected that Juana had killed the baby, though they never accused her outright. Juana seemed quite nervous when Nutini came to interview the family for his research, and on his follow-up visits she avoided him altogether. What María thought, or what she did about it, isn’t recorded.

I don’t think there is an analogue to the tlahuelpuchi in Bengali folklore; but if there were, this would be the story that Tagore would write.

Young mother 1914 jpg Blog

What about the other signature of the tlahuelpuchi: that they leave their victims by the door? Imagine that you are one of these mothers; you wake in the middle of the night and find the still body of your child next to you. Perhaps you realize what really happened, perhaps you think that the tlahuelpuchi got lazy. But you might be afraid that your husband will blame you for the death — and perhaps beat you. You might want to make it crystal clear that your child was the victim of the tlahuelpuchi. So you move your baby’s body to where it’s “supposed” to be.

Do you remember what you did in the morning? So many of the mothers in Nutini’s accounts, like Francisca, were hard to awaken the morning after the sucking. Did they move the babies while in a state of shock, obeying a legend that they had internalized all their lives? Did they have nightmares afterwards of a battle of wills with glowing, fire-eyed bird monsters? Dreams of a paralyzing mist? Or did they wake knowing exactly what they’d done, knowing the truth about the tlahuelpuchi legend?

Normally when a child died in rural Tlaxcala, their funeral procession was filled with music. Mourners sang and made noise on the way to the cemetery. Perhaps this was a way to comfort the spirit of the child on their first and last journey without their parents. But the funeral of a sucking victim was a silent affair. No priest said prayers over the casket. No one said a word until the padrinos (burial “godparents”) commended the baby’s soul to God as they erected the cross over the grave. It was traditional for the padrinos to visit the grave after eight days (the octava de cruz), but this didn’t happen for a tlahuelpuchi victim. After the wake, all the child’s clothes and possessions were burned. They had no octava de cruz; no flowers were ever placed on their grave. The child wasn’t remembered on the family altar on Dia de los Muertos. They were rarely spoken of again. It’s as if the child never existed: a tragedy the family tried to wish away, a mistake they rather were undone.

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Postscript: Infant mortality rates dropped drastically in rural Tlaxcala after about 1965, from about 45% of children under five in 1960 to about 20% in 1985. When Nutini revisited the area in the mid-eighties, the tlahuelpuchi was only a vague folkloric memory — just a story — even to his original informants. In fact, he noticed that many people had stopped using the Nahuatl term tlahuelpuchi, opting instead for the generic Spanish term bruja (witch).


The names of victims and parents are as given by Nutini, except “María,” and “Juana”, whose names weren’t given.

References

Nutini, Hugo G. An Epistemological Study of Anthropomorphic Supernaturalism in Rural Tlaxcala. University of Arizona Press, 1993.

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

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

del Campo, Edgar Martín. “The Global Making of a Mexican Vampire: Mesoamerican, European, African, and Twentieth-Century Media Influences on the Teyollohcuani“, History of Religions, Vol. 49, No. 2 (November 2009).

Images

La Malinche, David Tuggy. Wikipedia
Woman with Dead Child, Kathe Kollwitz, 1903. WikiArt
Garlic Cloves and Knife on the Corner of a Table, Gustave Caillebotte, 1878. WikiArt
Reclining Mother and Child, Paula Modersohn-Becker. WikiArt
Young Mother, Egon Schiele, 1914. WikiArt
Funeral Symphony (V), Mikalojus Ciurlionis, 1903. WikiArt

4 thoughts on “The Tlahuelpuchi Epidemic

  1. I had never heard of this legend. I agree with drgeraldstein’s comment above. It’s so interesting to see how myth explains reality…or maybe something beyond? In any case, such a sad tale.

    • I’d never heard of the tlahuelpuchi/teyollohcuani until I started this “Mexican Monstresses” series. At first, I just thought it was another cool legend, but then I ran into Nutini’s book. Very sad, but fascinating as well.

      It is interesting how the myth “explains” real events. That seems to be true of the vampire myth in general; vampirism was the “explanation” for tuberculosis in New England in the early 18th century, and the explanation for certain empirical facts about death and decomposition in Europe, as well. Interesting stuff.

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