For the ancient Nahuas, there was no element more sacred than the Sun. The Mesoamerican peoples’ understanding of the cosmos lies in the duality of life and death as the basis of the order of the universe. The Sun would die each dusk, hiding behind the west horizon, only to be reborn each morning in the East.
But the Star King was not alone in his daily renewal. From midnight into the zenith, he was accompanied the Ahuiateteo, the spirit of brave warriors who had died in combat. From noon on, the dying Sun was guided by goddesses who had proven their courage during battle, the Cihuateteo, women who had reached the divine after dying during childbirth.
Birth has a predominant place in most of the world’s cultures, and the pre-Columbian civilizations were no exception. The joining of birth and death, the moment in which one life begins and another ends, took on a sacred quality for the Aztecs. After the birth, the midwife would celebrate a ritual to commemorate this event. However, if something went wrong, and the woman giving birth died, her image would take on a new meaning.
The dead bodies of women who had died in labor were seen as divine. Their bravery was admired by their community. After the funeral ceremonies were done, the male relatives would guard the woman’s remains from warriors who would steal parts of their body as tokens of courage.
The Cihuateteo would then move on to live out eternity in Cincalco, the temple of corn, to serve as guides for the Sun each dusk. They were adored and related to Cihuacoatl, goddess of motherhood.
However, the veneration of the Cihuateteo came with a dark side. These goddesses would also carry misfortune, spreading fear and despair among the living. It is believed that these deities would appear as wanderers on crossroads or paths. Some ancient codex and inscriptions show them as having a skull head, claws, and being surrounded by animals related to death and darkness.
Their presence also became an essential element of fatal omens that, according to Nahua tradition, started to appear a decade prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The sixth of these omens, showing a wailing woman on the road, is not only significant of the cries of Cihuacoatl, but also of the Cihuateteo.
“It’s said that the goddesses of the Cihuateteo would descend under the sign of the Ce Ozomatli, to paralyze small children (…) parents would not let their children leave the house out of fear that they would encounter these deities.”
As time passed, particularly after the fall of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, the dark duality of the Cihuateteo was influenced by Hispanic tradition, transforming their nature into a malignant creature not unlike the European idea of ghosts. During the early days of the colonial period, the divinity of mothers who died during childbirth was eventually forgotten. The remnants of this legend became the ghost story of La Llorona, or The Weeping Woman.
Translated by María Suárez