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Cihuateteo, or “Divine Women,” were the malevolent spirits of women who died in childbirth (1). In the Aztec religion, they were attuned with the spirits of men who died in battle, because a woman in labor was said to capture the spirit of her newborn child much like a warrior captures his opponent in battle (2).
The Cihuateteo resided in a region in the west known as Cihuatlampa, “place of women,” and bore the sun from its zenith at midday to its position on the western horizon at dusk (1). On five specific days in the Aztec calendar, they descended to the earth: 1 Deer, 1 Rain, 1 Monkey, 1 House, and 1 Eagle. During these times, they were thought “to haunt the crossroads, hoping to kidnap young children since they had been deprived of their opportunity to be mothers” (3). The figure of a Cihuateotl from the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been inscribed on top of her head with the name Ce Calli, “1 House,” while the figure from the British Museum is inscribed with the glyph “1 Monkey.” These indicate their respective days of descent (2, 1).
Cihuateteo can be characterized as “fearsome figures with clenched, claw-like fists, macabre, bared teeth and gums and aggressive poses” (1). Sitting with their clawed feet tucked beneath their skirts, they seem at once in repose and ready to attack. In Aztec art, the postpartum female body is often depicted with pendulous breasts and stomach folds. Cihuateotl’s taut stomach, exposed, youthful breasts, and delineated nipples serve to underscore her unrealized potential as a mother. These women died before having the opportunity to bear and nurse their newborn child. Figures bearing their unkempt, swirling hairdo are often associated with darkness and the earth. Cihuatlampa, where they lived, was a place of darkness. The Cihuateteo accompanied the sun there to extinguish it until warriors lifted it up again to the sky (2).
- Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo, and Solís Olguín, Felipe. Aztecs. London, Royal Academy, 2002.
- Gassaway, William T. "Cihuateotl | Aztec | The Met." The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I.e. The Met Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
- Nicholson, Henry B., and Eloise Quiñones-Keber. The Art of Aztec Mexico: Treasures of Tenochtitlan. Catalogue of an Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1983. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1983.