The cosmology of the Mesoamericans presents a lush, complex landscape
of deities and ideas. Study of this cosmology, through a particularly
feminist lens, reveals powerful female deities. Among the most intriguing
are the Cihuateteo.
The Cihuateteo (literally women goddesses)
appear in the pantheon of Mesoamerican cosmology as mortal women who died
in childbirth and were then deified.
In regular cycles, the Cihuateteo traversed the heavens, the underworld,
and the earthly plane. Daily they dwelt with the stars in the western
sky in the heavenly region called Cihuatlampa (place of women)
and accompanied the sun from noon to sunset, then through the night as
it lit the underworld.
Every 52 days
in the ritual calendar,
the Cihuateteo descended to earth to reign for a day associated
with the west. It is the very regularity of the Cihuateteos
presence that places them habitually in the lives of the Mesoamericans.
In central Mexico, Goddesses were worshipped at cihuateocalli
(goddess houses) of different sizes and locations. The Cihuateteo
were honored in neighborhood cihuateocalli built at the crossroads.
During the days of the Goddesses descent, their images in the shrines
were festooned with paper (amatetéuitl) pegged to the statues
with bits of rubber or copal.
They were given offerings of tamales
and toasted corn, as well as bread shaped as butterflies and lightning
On the days the Cihuateteo descended, children were cautioned
to stay inside and men were warned to be careful, as contact with these
Goddesses could cause palsy. These admonitions have historically been
used to paint the Cihuateteo as maleficent beings. I offer another
interpretation, seeing the days they descended as times when possession
was imminent and viewing palsy as a symptom of possession. Only those
who were skilled in dealing with divine possession should be outside on
the days the Cihuateteo descended.
The negative framing of these Goddesses has led to their continued demonization.
Modern writings compare them to vampires and other maleficent specters.
However, according to the veneration practices of the Mesoamericans, the
Cihuateteo are powerful, benevolent and munificent ancestors.
One of the most beautiful tributes to the Cihuateteo was the prayer
that the midwife recited at the death of a young mother.
In this prayer the midwife cried at the death of her patient, urging the
parents to be glad that their child had died in childbirth because she
would become a Goddess and accompany the sun as a brave one, a mocihuaquetzque:
My little one, my daughter, my noble woman,
you have wearied yourself, you have fought bravely. By your labors you
have achieved a noble death, you have come to the place of the Divine.
Go, beloved child, little by little towards them (the Cihuateteo)
and become one of them; go daughter and they will receive you and you
will be one of them forever, rejoicing with your happy voices in praise
of our Mother and Father, the Sun, and you will always accompany them
wherever they go in their rejoicing. (Sahagún
At the end of the prayer, the midwife exhorted the new Cihuateotl
not to forget her and all those left on earth, to remember and aid them
as they led their hard lives on the earthly plane. This prayer portrayed
the Cihuateteo as benevolent beings, honored and revered.
Throughout this prayer, the Cihuateteo were referred to in militaristic
terms. They were called brave and extolled for fighting
bravely, and their daily journey with the sun from noon to dusk
mirrored the slain warriors journey with the sun from dawn to noon.
The Cihuateteo were literally the embodiment of bravery. In fact,
warriors would attempt to sever the middle finger of the dead womans
left hand to use as a talisman to assure their own bravery and success
in battle. The midwives and family members who carried her to her grave
had to stop warriors from dismembering the body of the Cihuateteo.
The question of why the Cihuateteo were described in militaristic
terms and venerated in the same way as warriors who died in battle has
been much debated. Melgarejo Vivanco wrote that the Cihuateteo
were given the same honor as dead warriors because it helped promote motherhood
with the incentive of deification (167). A militaristic society,
he noted, must be supplied with soldiers. This is a commonly repeated
Mexico City. Note the skeletolized face and clawed fingers (clawed
toes not visible). Belt around waist has similar ollin style knot.
Photo © Anne Key.
However, honoring women by comparing them to warriors assumes that warriors
had died in battle before women died in childbirth.
I suggest that the scenario of the Cihuateteo existed before the
culture knew war,
and that the increasingly militaristic Mesoamerican society may have co-opted
a longstanding custom of honoring women who died in childbirth to valorize
It can then be posited that warriors were given the same status as women
who died in childbirth; that as an incentive for warriors to go into battle,
they were to be honored as women had been honored for centuries, perhaps
millennia. Women dying in childbirth were the exemplars of courage, given
the highest honor available to mortals to journey with the
sun. Warriors would share this honor, giving them the same status as the
The iconography associated with the Cihuateteo differs in the
various regions. The Cihuateteo statues from the state of Veracruz
were modeled after the deceased bodies of individual women who died in
childbirth. Multivalent symbols appear on these statues: fantastic headdresses
represent the sky dragon and the earth monster; bicephalic pit-vipers
wrapped around their waists represent internal female organs and attributes
of deities associated with death. The vipers are tied in a knot similar
to the glyph ollin, which means movement.
The most striking aspect of these statues is their humanness. These were
real women the artisans contemporaries, possibly their
relatives, friends, part of their community. They were rendered as fleshy,
corporeal, mortal, real. Every post-mortem detail was captured. I believe
it is this humanness that makes these statues a true testament to the
deceased women they were truly revered ancestors.
In contrast, the Central Mexican Cihuateteo do not have individual
characteristics; there is little variance among them. These statues are
kneeling and have descarnated faces and clawed feet, contrasted with their
long, luxurious hair. On the top of some of their heads, a day glyph of
one of the days of the Cihuateteos descent is designed into
the hair. Their belts or snakes are tied in the similar ollin glyph
style knot. Their breasts are bared, visible above their knotted belts
The Cihuateteo were the beloved and brave women who died in the
act of childbirth. The midwifes prayer assured the mother that her
death had not been in vain, that she would be remembered for her act of
bravery. The prayer poignantly expressed the bravery of the Cihuateteo,
showing their honored place with the sun. There was no doubt that the
Cihuateteo were powerful deities. Traversing the celestial, earthly,
and underworld spheres and honored in neighborhood shrines, they were
an integral part of the spiritual landscape of the Mesoamericans.
- All translations from
the Spanish or Nahuatl are mine.
- Cihuateteo (pl);
- See Pomeroy for speculation
that Spartan women who died in childbirth were also honored in the
same way as warriors slain in battle.
- The underworld portion
of this cycle is not explicitly stated in Sahagún’s writings but can
be found elsewhere. See Key for evidence and sources.
- The 260-day ritual year
was divided into 20 time periods called trecenas (from the
Spanish trece meaning 13) made up of 13 days each. There were
four sets of trecenas, each associated with one of the four
directions. So in the whole 260-day cycle, five individual trecenas
were associated with a single direction. The Cihuateteo descended
on the first day of each trecena associated with the west:
the 3rd, ce mazatl (one deer); the 7th, ce quiahuitl
(one rain); the 11th, ce ozomatl (one monkey); the 15th, ce
calli (one house); and the 19th, ce quauhtli (one eagle).
- It has been suggested
that this 260-day ritual cycle follows the human gestation period
from the first sign of life to birth (covering 9 lunations) and is
intricately associated with female cycles. See Tate for further information.
- Copal is a fragrant tree
resin burned in ritual. It is still used today.
- Tamales are still considered
sacred food, made and served on feast days. Tamales represent the
human body: the masa (corn dough) is the skin, the meat is
the muscle, and the red sauce is the blood.
- Many prayers and rites
of the Aztecs were recorded by B. Sahagún, one of the first clerics
to arrive in Mexico from Spain. He recorded the Prayer of the Midwife
in a romanized version of the indigenous oral language Nahuatl. Though
his writings are certainly infused with a Catholic overlay, they are
one of the few extant sources for pre-conquest rituals, prayers, and
beliefs. For a beautiful rendition of many of the sacred sayings and
prayers, see Sullivan and Knab.
- This term is sometimes
translated as “brave ones”, “valiant women” or “female warriors” and
other times as “those that arose as women”. See Miller and Taube and
- Rohrlich and Nash find
“no evidence of gender and class distinctions, or of warfare, before
the latter part of Toltec hegemony” (p. 93), possibly as late as 900
CE. However, more current scholarship by Marcus finds signs of warfare
in the Oaxaca area by 700-500 BCE. According to Marcus, from 1400
to 1150 BCE the society was egalitarian, with families “integrated
through participation in village ritual” (p. 2). However, signs of
hereditary inequality began appearing in 1150 BCE, and by 700-500
BCE, warfare was evident.
- de Piña Chán speculates
that the Cihuateteo date from the Formative era but that they
do not appear in statuary until the Classic era on the Gulf Coast
- Key, Anne. Death and the Divine: The
Cihuateteo, Goddesses in the Mesoamerican Cosmovision. Diss. California
Institute of Integral Studies, 2005.
- Klein, Cecilia. “The devil and the skirt:
An iconographic inquiry into the pre-Hispanic nature of the Tzitzimime”.
Ejournal: Revista estudios de cultural Náhuatl. 31 (2000):
April 20, 2003, http://www.ejournal.unam.mx/cultura_nahuatl/ecnahuatl31/ECN31002.pdf.
- Marcus, J. Women’s Ritual in Formative
Oaxaca: Figurine-making, Divination, Death, and the Ancestors.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1988
- Melgarejo Vivanco, J. L. Los Totonaca
y su cultura [The Totonacs and their culture]. Xalapa, Mexico:
Universidad Veracruzana. 1985.
- Miller, Mary and Karl Taube. The Illustrated
Dictionary of The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya.
New York: Thames and Hudson. 1993.
- de Piña Chán, Beatriz.B. “ Elementos psicopompos
en la arqueología mexicana [Psychopomp elements in Mexican archaeology]”.
Ed. H. K. Kocyba, Y Gonález Torres, & R. Piña Chán Historia comparativa
de las religiones Mexico City, Mexico: INAH. 1988. 145-168.
- Pomeroy, Sarah B. Spartan Women.
New York: Oxford University Press. 2002.
- Rohrlich, R., & Nash, J. “The patriarchal
puzzle: State formation in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica”. (No publication
information available.) 1981. 90-95.
- Sahagún, Bernardino. Historia general
de las cosas de nueva españa. Transl. A.M. Garibay K. Mexico City:
Editorial Porrúa. 1999.
- Sullivan, Thelma D. and Timothy J. Knab.
A Scattering of Jades: Stories, Poems, and Prayers of the Aztecs.
Tucson: University of Arizona Press. 2003.
- Tate, Carolyn. “Writing on the Face of
the Moon”. Manifesting Power: Gender and the Interpretation of
Power. Ed. Tracy Sweely. New York: Routledge. 1999. 81-102
- Cihuateteo, photos © 2008
Anne Key. All rights reserved.