Pre-Hispanic Witchcraft in Mexico


With all topics related to pre-Hispanic cultures in America, care must be taken, since what has been preserved has passed through the hands and vision of Europeans, and above all, through the filter of the Christian religion. Therefore, when talking about witchcraft, we must keep in mind that many acts that were religious or magical could be included in this category, even though they did not have any bad intentions, which is key to what was understood by witchcraft.

That is why, for the introduction of this article, we must first define what magic consisted of for the pre-Hispanic Mexican people. In their religion and culture, the relationship with the gods was not one of pure submission, but of work, of exchange: the sacrifices caused the gods to give something back in return, something favorable for humans. Likewise in magic, those who possessed it were because they had a divine connection, and in both the magic that we would call good and bad, an exchange was carried out through ritual offerings. Not in vain, in several Latin American countries the different moorings and spells are called "jobs."

Magic is, mythologically speaking, a divine ability. The creator gods, the two Tezcatlipoca (Tlatlauhqui Tezcatlipoca (Red Tezcatlipoca), Yayauhqui Tezcatlipoca (Black Tezcatlipoca)), Quetzalcóatl and Huitzilopochtli, create the elements, the earth, water and sky, also fire, and other gods. These minor gods will be the intermediaries between them and human beings, and the means by which humans will be able to achieve a little bit of that creative power. The first humans, Oxomoco and Cipactónal, were blessed with various arts and knowledge, and among them:

<<Then they made a man and a woman: the man was called Uxumuco and she was called Cipactónal. And they ordered them to till the land, and she to spin and weave. And that the macehuales would be born from them, and that they would not rest, but would always work. And the gods gave her certain grains of corn, so that she could cure them and use them in riddles and sorceries, and this is how women use them today.>> (Ángel María Garibay, History of the Mexicans through their paintings, p.25)

So divination by corn constitutes a native divination system with a long Mexica tradition. In Nahuatl it is called tlachixcahuilli.

Not everyone could dedicate themselves to magic, and of course, there was beneficial and evil magic. There were various divine signs that marked the magical destiny of a person and the path he should take. Often at birth or childhood unusual signs occurred that the wisest and priests interpreted as indications of a divine gift. The god Tláloc, for example, on the day of the presentation of the baby in front of the water, his domain, could manifest himself in different ways if he wanted that person to dedicate himself to his service or to his magical arts, healing and clairvoyance. If he had a major physical defect, Xolotl, lord of monsters and sorcerers, would be his patron. Even as adults, those who were struck by lightning and did not die left their positions to dedicate themselves to divination and medicine, following heavenly command.

But, focusing for this article on witchcraft, we can realize that also in the pre-Hispanic world it was associated with people of bad living, with malevolent intentions towards their patrons.

Tlatlacatecolo witches and their variants

Another way to identify a supernatural power depended on the day of birth, whether one was born on a good or bad day. Ce quiahuitl was a disastrous date, where the tlatlacatecolo witches were born, which means: owl-men, since they performed their rituals at night and their cries could be heard. It seems to be a play on words, since Coloa also meant "to harm", and owls were considered emissaries of Mitclán, the Kingdom of the Dead. In addition, it was believed that they could transform into various animals, including owls and owls, as well as others considered bad omens or appearances, such as chickens, coyotes or wolves.

As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún transmitted to us: (english below)

<< Decían que era de mala ventura porque en esta casa (tiempo del signo celeste, como las actuales casas zodiacales) decían que las diosas que se llamaban cihuateteu descendían a la tierra y daban muchas enfermedades a los muchachos y muchachas (...) Tenían temor los padres y madres que no diese perlasía a sus hijos si saliesen a alguna parte reinante este signo. Ofrecían en los oratorios de las diosas porque habían muchos en muchas partes, y cobrían con papeles a las estatuas destas diosas.

También reinante este signo mataban a los que estaban encarcelados por algún pecado criminal digno de muerte. También mataban a los esclavos por la vida del señor, porque viviese muchos años.

Y a los que nacían en este signo no los baptizaban, sino difiríanlos hasta la tercera casa, que se llamaba ei cipactli. Decían que aquella casa mejoraba la ventura de aquel que se baptizaba. Y decían que los que nacían en este signo serían nigrománticos o embaidores o hechiceros, y se trasfiguraban en animales, y sabían palabras para hechizar a las mujeres y para inclinar los corazones a lo que quisiesen, y para otros maleficios. >> (Historia de la Nueva España)

<< They said it was unlucky because in this house (time of the celestial sign, like the current zodiacal houses) they said that the goddesses called cihuateteu descended to earth and gave many illnesses to the boys and girls (...) Fathers and mothers were afraid that it would not give pearls to their children if this sign were to appear anywhere. They offered in the oratories of the goddesses because there were many in many places, and they covered the statues of these goddesses with papers.

Also reigning in this sign, they killed those who were imprisoned for some criminal sin worthy of death. They also killed the slaves for the life of the master, so that he would live many years.

And those who were born in this sign were not baptized, but rather deferred until the third house, which was called ei cipactli. They said that that house improved the fortune of those who were baptized. And they said that those born in this sign would be necromantics or ambassadors or sorcerers, and would transform themselves into animals, and they knew words to bewitch women and to incline hearts to whatever they wanted, and for other spells. >> (History of New Spain)

In short, those born in the thirteenth of 1 Rain, as it is commonly known, were destined to be witches and have supernatural powers of dubious morality. This type of life, whose only business seems to have been curses requested by third parties, used to accompany a solitary and miserable life. All of this was due to the evil influence of the time, in which death sentences were carried out and the spirits of women who died giving birth, the cihuateteo, returned to the world of the living as ghosts.

It was not the only festival dedicated to the cihuateteo, but it is worth doing a brief review of these divinities, since they were also related to a specific type of Tlatlacatecolo witches, as we will see a little later. Women who died in childbirth were considered "warriors fallen in battle," and received great honors and sumptuous burials. It was said that after death they lived in heaven, ruled by the goddess of life and death, Cihuacóatl, and that they collected the souls of warriors killed in the fight. Anthropologically, it is difficult to establish the reasons why these beneficent women, when they descended to earth, were evil spirits who spread diseases and other evils. However, it is also said that they could be seen as lost souls, crying and screaming, in the alleys and at crossroads, where their places of worship used to be, as a warning of terrible times to come. For some scholars, the ghostly Cihuateteo is the figure on which the later legend of La Llorona was based.

Well, after the burial of a cihuateteo, relatives and soldiers stayed guard for at least four days around her tomb, since certain tlatlacatecolo sought to desecrate them and cut off their arm, a finger or their hair, since they were considered a very powerful talisman, which guaranteed victory in all aspects. Possibly, hence the name of these sorcerers, the Temaepalitoti (also called momaepalitoti and tepopotza), which means, those who dance with the hand (from the Cihuateteo). It is understood that these witches made use of the remains of the corpses to achieve unjust purposes, although it is possible to think that at some point their services were requested by warriors or people in trials.

There are long lists of Tlatlacatecolo witches, since there was a specific name for each of them, according to their way of casting a spell. López Austin (1967) gives a broad list that is worth consulting, but for this article we will take only those that we consider most relevant, due to their direct relationship with acts of witchcraft understood from the point of view of Europeans.

The Tlatztini, for example, bewitched with their gaze, with which they could possess and destroy. It was a kind of evil eye, since for the spell to work, the witcher had to keep his eyes fixed on the target.

The Tlamatocani, for their part, were a kind of "cursed", capable of contaminating everything they touched (which is what their name refers to)

The Caltechtlacuiloani painted different stripes on the walls and doors of the houses, probably with blood, thus casting a spell on those who lived there, possibly even causing their death.

The Tepanmizoni performed spells using their own blood. There are doubts about whether his name, "the one who throws his blood on you," refers to a literal act or whether it was performed on a clay figurine or some personal object of the person to be conjured, whose final destination was death.

Very similar is the Tetlepanquetzi, "the one who prepares fires", since his destruction rituals involved simulating a funeral with a human figurine with offerings of food for four days, and then incinerating the figure. Next, he used the food offered with the person he really wanted to kill (inviting her, giving her a gift, accidentally leaving some in her house...), so that the funeral offering would attract that person's funeral. Likewise, a fairly widespread witchcraft ritual consisted of burning the person's hair.

The Tlatlacatecolo were persecuted and eliminated. They said that the best way to take away their tonalli, that is, their destiny and their energy, was by shaving the crown of their heads. It is said that a threat/talisman against the Tlatlacatecolo was to put an upside-down hat on the door or window of the house, perhaps precisely to refer to the crown of the head. Exposing them to sunlight was also a way to keep them away, since they were considered nocturnal beings. Then you had to be careful that the witcher did not touch anyone's anything, since he could cast a spell on that person and steal his strength. If it could be avoided, the tlatlacatecolo would die.

On the same disastrous day of Ce quiahuitl, the temacpalitotique were born, with whose definition there are some problems, since for some they are village witches who were actually scammers and did not possess real powers, they used to be of low caste, finding their subsistence in these false enchantments; and for others, they were witches who managed to put their victims to sleep, sometimes using the hand of cihuateteo, managing to enter houses to rob and rape. There are records of convictions for these charges and given knowledge of drugs in the Nahua culture, both versions may have their share of truth (english below):

<< El temacpalitoti es lanzador de sueño a la gente;

es echador del sueño, ladrón.

Hace a la gente bailar en la palma de la mano;

arroja el sueño a la gente;

amortece el corazón a la gente; hace

desmayar a la gente;

hace bulto con todas las cosas;

todas las cosas se lleva >> (Códice Florentino, X, 39)

<< The temacpalitoti is a dream caster for people;

he is a caster of sleep, a thief.

He makes people dance in the palm of his hand;

he casts sleep upon the people;

it deadens people's hearts; he does

make people faint;

it makes a bundle with all things;

takes all things >> (Florentine Codex, X, 39)

The temacpalitoti used to interact with the divinities, despite their evil acts, especially with Quetzalcoalt, if they were born in 1 Wind. Other acts of witchcraft required the support of specific deities, such as Xipe, the Night Drinker, who was actually a sexual god who accompanied witches when, in addition to stealing, they physically took advantage of sleeping victims.

The Mometzcopinqui and (perhaps) the Cihuanotzqui witches.

The Mometzcopinqui were the women who were also born on that date and on the other disastrous date, Ce Ehecalt (1st wind). These are beings that were associated with European witches but in reality have unique characteristics, closer to the Greco-Roman lamias or striges. It was said that these women had supernatural powers but their main food must be human blood. In the middle of the night they would "unscrew" their legs (which is what their name refers to), and change them for bird legs. They also did the same with their arms, changing them for turkey wings, and their mouth for a beak. They hid the human parts in the tlecuilli (the home, near the kitchen).

They flew out and descended into the streets of the towns in the form of balls of fire. They sneaked into the houses and drank the blood of babies and children (unbaptized), whom they left dead in the houses or nailed to the agave plants. They kept some of the blood in their beaks, or vomited it out, to store it in their house and not arouse suspicion by going out so often. Children were not their only food, as they also stole livestock and flew them home. When they returned, they changed their limbs again and had a completely human appearance. Obviously they had to hide this curious ability or they would be condemned.

There were several superstitions and remedies to prevent them from entering the house, such as putting up mirrors so that they would be scared of their reflection, or putting a plate of water and some cross-shaped scissors under the crib. At the door of the house, bowls with water and a black stone knife were placed inside. Mustard and ocote could be burned near the roofs to scare them away. There was also the possibility of burning her human limbs when she went out hunting, and in this way, she would die from the burns or would not be able to change her appearance and would be trapped.

In some versions, this condition of mometzcopinqui was not simply natural, but was produced by a pact made by women born in Ce quiahuitl or Ce Ehecalt with the god Tezcatlipoca, patron of sorcerers - whose symbolic animal was, coincidentally, the turkey. -, drinking blood for the rest of his life in exchange for other fantastic magical powers, such as becoming invisible or traveling between different worlds. However, we cannot help but think about the influence of the European image of the witch who obtains her powers through a pact with Satan and another demon.

The appearance of the Mometzcopinqui has been identified with the two patron gods of the wind, Quetzalcoalt and Tezcatlipoca, who are mythological enemies. Xiuhtecuhtli or Huehueteotl is the god of the hearth fire, where we have seen that the witch hides her human limbs, and was created by those two gods: in this way, we can see that the act of seeking blood for the witch is not only an obligation , but part of his magical ritual, in which he invokes the three divinities through symbolism.

Regarding the Cihuanotzqui, Xoxhihua or Cihuatlatole there are doubts about whether their gender was predominantly female or if their number was distributed equally between men and women. There are some authors who doubt the etymologies and others who consider the unique existence of the winged witch and no other, which would radically clash with popular tradition and vision. In any case, her powers focus on what they call "seduction", although in reality she reminds us more of love spells.

Apparently one of the most common procedures was to take a number of corn kernels or sprigs from the part closest to the roots, in a number inverse to that of the date of birth of the person to be bewitched, or with a similar relationship.

These grains were used in magical concoctions that produced changes in people's attitudes, obtaining love or disdain from them, depending on the interest of the client, mostly male. These concoctions were conjured with an invocation to the gods of love Tlazolteólt and Xochiquétzal.

As has been seen throughout the article, in Mexica culture the male role of the evil witch stood out, compared to a more monstrous female witch.

It can also be seen that divination or quackery have hardly been mentioned, since in their time they were not classified as witchcraft, but as good magic. Something similar happens today, so we can openly say that the relationship between witchcraft and evil acts is an anthropological constant. Let us not forget, then, that Christianity also changed magical thinking, putting everything in the same sinful bag, regardless of its good or bad purpose. Without a doubt, much information was lost through European translations, although also thanks to them, oral traditions have been preserved and the analysis of written ones has been facilitated, which allows the recovery movements of the pre-Columbian world to advance further today. faster than ever.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada -


- "Códice Carolino", presentación de Ángel Ma. Garibay K., Estudios de

Cultura Náhuatl, vol. VD, 1967.

- López Austin, A. Cuarenta clases de magos en el mundo náhuatl", en Estudios de cultura náhuatl, núm. 7, 1967, pp. 87-117.

- López Austin, Alfredo, "Los temacpalitotique. Brujos profanadores, ladrones y violadores", en Estudios de cultura náhuatl, núm. 6, 1966, pp. 97-117.

- Sepúlveda, M.T. La brujería en el México antiguo: comentario crítico. Dimensión antropológica, año 2, volumen 4, mayo/agosto de 1995.

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