The Aztecs’ answer to the classic child’s question, where do babies come from? was that they came from the 13th heaven. The highest heaven of all. Here, in this store of unborn souls, they waited until the gods decided to place them in their mother’s belly.
The Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl was a complex deity, known in one aspect for luring people into bad behaviour and in another for absolving them of their sins. This figurine at the Tate Gallery in London shows Tlazolteotl during childbirth in her mother goddess aspect.
“The magnificent squatting image of the Mexica goddess of childbirth, naked, solitary in the ecstasy of total effort, does not represent a woman in “labour”. Here we look upon the face of battle. If men challenged the death anguish on the jaguar meadow of war, women confronted it on the bloody field of childbirth...”
This quote comes from Aztecs by Ingla Clendinnen, who goes on to emphasise that for the Mexica women struggling to give birth felt ‘possessed’ by some great outside presence, in the same way that men in battle were overwhelmed by the force of Huitzilopochtli. This metaphor of war goes on: ‘for those who emerged victorious from the struggle the midwife greeted the newly delivered child, the little “captive”, with war-cries, while praising the panting mother for her warrior’s courage.’
The midwife - every pregnant Mexica woman was assigned one - welcomed the new mother as if she had just returned from a major battle, with these words (from the Florentine Codex)
“My beloved maiden, brave woman ... thou hast become as an eagle warrior, thou has become as an ocelot [jaguar] warrior; thou hast raised up, thou hast taken to the shield, the small shield. ... Thou hast returned exhausted from battle, my beloved maiden, my brave woman; be welcome.”
Losses on any battlefield are inevitable, so women who died as a result of childbirth were given the same honour as men who fought and died in conflict. Both of these roles were deemed great sacrifices for the good of the community. According to Manual Aguilar- Monreno the women became “such powerful beings that when a woman died in childbirth, her family had to guard her body carefully to prevent thieves from taking relics: the middle finger of her left hand, or her hair. Warriors believed that if they placed this finger or hair in their shields, it would make them stronger and braver, and blind their enemies.”
After her death the woman’s body and hair, which was left loose, would be washed, and she would then be dressed in her best clothes. The midwife would recite a prayer acknowledging her sacrifice, and praising the woman for her bravery. When possible, her husband would carry her body to a special site dedicated to goddesses. Along the way he would be accompanied by the attending midwife, and the elder women of the community would arm themselves with swords and shields and perform battle cries. Once they reached their destination, for the next four days the deceased woman’s family and friends would watch over and defend her corpse from other warriors.
Finally, on the fourth day, it was believed that the teyolia, (the spirit or vitality of the individual), separated from the corpse and then continued on to an afterlife. Unlike many other belief systems, Aztec/Mexica afterlife destinations were not dictated by a person’s deeds carried out during their lifetime, but by the specific events of their death. In result, the teyolia of a warrior would transform into a spirit being and reside in a place of honour called Tonatiuh-Ilhuicac, the Heaven of the Sun. Here, they acted as escort to the sun, accompanying its daytime movements across the sky. Once four years had passed, male warriors would be reborn as butterflies or hummingbirds who could travel freely between the realms of both the living and the dead.
The Cihuateteo were the beloved and brave women who died in the act of childbirth. The midwife’s 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 honoured place with the sun. There was no doubt that the Cihuateteo were powerful deities. Traversing the celestial, earthly, and underworld spheres and honoured in neighbourhood shrines, they were an integral part of the spiritual landscape of the Mesoamericans.
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. The negative framing of these Goddesses has led to their continued demonisation. 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 labours 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, p 381-382)
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, honoured and revered.
Words by Cheryl Gault