[NB] Mothers of the Nahua Netherworld

Following on the last post, it seems as good a time as any to pull some quotations from Sigal’s The Flower and the Scorpion. The first set of quotes follow on the discussion of the dead mother, focusing on the cihuateteo.

“For, when a woman died in childbirth, her body was believed to confer great strength on warriors, such that the midwives would try to protect the woman’s body. When the entourage carried the body away, warriors attacked them, and the midwives protected themselves and the dead woman with shields. The warriors sought to break off the middle finger or a lock of hair from the dead woman.” (122)

We have here another instance of the struggle between women-buriers and (male) necromancy, with the one seeking to make use of the body, and the other seeking to put it rest. The identification of warriors with Tezcatlipoca amplifies the rivalry, with Tezcatlipoca’s sorcery-necromancy on one side and the mother Tlazolteotl on the other.

“We further witness that the cihuateteo wear both skirts and loincloths.” (123)

Sigal emphasizes this in a few places, because Nahua fashion strictly genders both pieces of clothing, depicting men in loincloths and women in skirts. The combination of the two gives the spirits an ambiguously gendered presentation to accompany their ambiguous position. While women, they died ‘as warriors’ (i.e., as men) in childbirth.

That struggle to bury the dead mother whole bears witness to the ambiguos place of such a woman. She is both a woman-mother and a man-warrior.

Sigal compares them to tzitzimame, which are frequently shown as skeletal figures wearing feminine Nahua clothing, but with a great phallic snake dangling between their legs. While most accounts favor reading the tzitzimame as either masculine or feminine, Sigal suggests preserving the ambiguity.

There are some very interesting possibilities here. As the tzitzimame are associated with the stars that attack the sun during an eclipse, they form a structural parallel to the cihuateteo who move through the night on dangerous days. The dangers represented by a solar eclipse (the failure of the celestial order that secures human life) parallels those of the dead mother (the failure of the reproductive order that secures the future of human life).

Moreover, the tzitzimame are often associated with the spiritual realm where humans were first created and to which dead infants return. The creation of life and the dead child tie the tzitzimame to the cihateteo again by inversion (the failure of the life-giving mother to endure and the dead mother). Consider, too, that the primary danger of the cihuateteo was that they might kill infants, thereby transferring the infant to the realm of the tzitzimame.

Quite a network of spiritual forces going on there, really.

4 thoughts on “[NB] Mothers of the Nahua Netherworld

  1. Pingback: [NB] Tlazolli and Populus | Disrupt & Repair

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