Mexican X Part VII: The Curse of Malinalxochitl

My posts about Mexican witches remind me that the “empire” controlled by the Mēxihcah was more patriarchal than we Mexican Americans might wish were true.

Of course, the marginalization of women in the Triple Alliance was nothing compared to what was going on in Europe at the time of the Conquest. Still, Anahuac was no feminist paradise.

Some scholars argue that “patriarchy” isn’t the right term for describing the power dynamics in male-dominated Aztec society. They are of course absolutely right that women did have power in what Dr. Rhianna Rogers calls the Triple Alliance’s “reciprocating system of gendered, cosmic duality.” But men wielded even more.

Nahua women, beyond running their homes, could be artisans, priestesses, doctors, merchants, and scribes. But they couldn’t enter the military schools, couldn’t participate in the warfare (real or ceremonial) that drove prestige in the Triple Alliance. They weren’t equal to men.

In her scholarly article “ The Aztecs and the Ideology of Male Dominance,” June Nash explains the impact of this duality in the workforce:

There are indications that this marginalization of women occured centuries before the Conquest, when the Mēxihcah and other Nahuas made their way toward the Valley of Mexico. The diminishing of earlier matriarchal power is exemplified by the story of the god Huitzilopochtli’s human sister: Malīnalxōchitl, priestess of Quilaztli.

Her tragedy echoes into our times. In a rural community in the state of Tlaxcala, during the month of December 1960, parents awakened to find their babies dead. It was a tlahuelpuchi attack, the town believed. A bloodsucking witch (or several) had entered their homes in bird form and drained their children dry.

How does this attack relate to Malīnalxōchitl, who lived a thousand years earlier? Patience. This is going to take a while. But if you hang with me, you’ll be illuminated.

Let’s start with that illumination. “Tlahuelpuchi,” the term used in Tlaxcala, comes from Nahuatl “tlāhuihpōchtli.” It’s compound of tlāhuia, “to light up / illuminate” and pōchtli, which can mean “haze”, “left/south”, or “youth” (as in compounds like tēlpōchtli, “young man”).

So “tlāhuihpōchtli” could be glossed “luminous youth.” An enlightened being. A sort of ancient witch.

Malīnalxōchitl was the first, the matriarch of a group of such illuminated Mēxihcah.

Let me set the stage. During the final stretch of the Mēxihcah’s long exodus (out of Aztlān and Chicōmoztōc and toward Ānāhuac), their religious rites were led by two siblings: Huitzitl and Malīnalxōchitl.

As the years passed, it came clear that Huitzitl — a powerful mage of the tlācatecolōtl order, the owl folk — was the human incarnation of tribal god Huitzilopochtli. He began to insist on battle and sacrifice.

His sister objected. Malīnalxōchitl and her band of followers, the tlātlāhuihpochtin (luminous ones), instead offered snakes, scorpions and toads to the goddess Quilaztli, who urged them in visions to remain in the desert and trek no further south.

One of the Luminous, wielding reptilian magic. Art by Charlene Bowles.

Huitzitl wanted conquest, however. They fought the Chichimeca bands of the deserts, taking captives, offering them to Huitzilopochtli. But at the next binding of the years, Huitzitl insisted that one of their own give up his life to start the new fire of another 52 years. The Luminous rebelled outright.

I’ve written about the conflict in my book Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico. Let me quote now from a section of that book: it’s a synthesis of passages from Crónica Mexicayotl, Historia de los mexicanos por sus pinturas, and the Histoire du Mechique, with info from the Codex Chimalpopoca, Leyenda de los soles and the Codex Chimalpahin.

“Sister, as chief tlāhuihpōchtli, most illuminated of your little band, hear me now. You and your followers are forever cursed. You abhor the forced spilling of blood, but now you will have to drink the blood of innocent children to survive. Detaching your legs, you will fly through the night, glowing. Transformed into turkeys or buzzards, your kind will seek once a month your horrible sustenance. This curse I lay upon you and all of your descendants.”

In effect, the Luminous — adepts of Quilaztli, desert witches who sought no harm — became …

VAMPIRES.

And this curse endures. Huitzitl, fully accepting his role as the incarnation of the God of War and the Sun, put his sister and her followers into a trance, transformed them with his magic, and abandoned them without any supplies in the heart of the desert.

Yet Malīnalxōchitl did not despair. When her people awakened, she led them to Mount Texcaltepētl, where they settled among the native Texcaltepecans. Malīnalxōchitl married one of the nobles of that nation, Chīmalcuāuhtli, and together they founded the great kingdom of Malīnalco: the place of Malīnalxōchitl (whose name means “wild rye blooms,” seen atop a skull in that city’s glyph).

But the curse endured.

Now, some descendants of the Luminous discover at puberty that they carry this curse. Their families keep them safe, reveal the secret to the shocked teens. Once a month, the tlahuelpuchi must feed. She must detach her legs from her body and become a bird of prey to hunt the innocent. It’s a rite. She crosses over the house of her victim twice, north to south, then east to west. Then she enters through a window and feeds … unless the family has left garlic or metal to ward her kind off.

That was Huitzilopochtli’s curse. This was the same god who — ages earlier in godly form — had dismembered another sister, Coyolxauhqui, whose broken form lay in bas relief at the foot of the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan. She also rebelled against her brother.

Still, there is a certain freedom and power that comes with being Luminous. At meals, tradition requires that Aztec men eat before the women.

But not when the Luminous bend their feathered heads to the necks of their prey.

Among those vampire witches, women feed first.