Monday, October 24, 2011

Magical Mondays #6: Cihuateteo, The Duality of Suffering Mother Spirits

Welcome to my sixth Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly discussing various magical traditions, creatures, and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical material to keep me busy for a while.


The rich and complex mythology of the Aztec people is defined by plentiful gods and other lesser types of supernatural beings.  As an expansionist empire of a martial bent, a warrior culture permeated many aspects of the society on all levels--including their beliefs in the supernatural. In particular, the spirits of fallen warriors were believed to be escorted by a type of spirit called the cihuateteo, the goddesses of the crossroads. During the day, the cihuateteo were said to dwell among the stars and traveled with the sun from noon to sunset and the continued along with the sun as it traveled through the underworld. Given the nature of their creation and their particular tasks, they are associated with several different Aztec deities, in particular Cihuacotal, a fertility and motherhood goddess, who herself was associated with the Aztec underworld, Mictlan.

These goddesses, or spirits depending on your interpretation, are a lot more interesting than just simple escorts for the spirits of dead warriors. They were said to be the spirits of women who died in childbirth. On first glance, it might seem odd that the spirits of such women would be tasked with escorting the spirits of fallen warriors, but in the Aztec culture, childbirth was considered a type of battle. Women who died in childbirth were therefore honored as fallen warriors. Besides their new post-death role as the escorts of the dead, their ashes and severed fingers were also believed to possess magical energy that could could aid Aztec warriors. As exemplars of personal courage, the thought was that their remains could help channel both that bravery in a direct and indirect way to lend aid in battle.

Images and depictions of the cihuateteo vary. Sometimes they were rendered as mostly normal women but with various symbolic animals and headdresses. A skeletal face was also a reoccurirng motif.

Aztec myth is defined by duality, and the cihuateteo are no exception. Despite the apparently nobility associated with being a escort of the honored dead, they were also sometimes a feared spirit. At night, however, and during certain days in the ritual calendar, they might haunt crossroads. There, they were associated with a variety of supernatural mischief. 

Some of these negative beliefs are fairly common things associated with dangerous spirits: disease, madness, and infirmity. Others are more closely linked to their origin, such as their reported tendency to occasioally kidnap children. Yet others are perhaps reflective of a fairly common cross-cultural ambivalence about women. For example, despite the association of the spirits with the honorable death in childbirth, the nighttime crossroad haunts were also associated with the seduction of men.
A carving of a cihuateteo from the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology
Photo by William Neuheisel

Even with this association with the occasional bit of anti-human action, they were still deeply venerated for both the sacrifice that brought to them their supernatural status and their role as spirit escorts. Shrines were built for them at crossroads, where they would be given offerings. Despite the bloody sacrifice that is associated with some types of Aztec ritual and religious practice, these spirits were apparently content with simple tamales and corn.

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