In Aztec mythology, Tzitzimime were demon-goddesses that lived in the darkness of the sky vault. These deities were commonly depicted as skeletal female figures wearing skirts often with skull and bones designs. Their ultimate purpose was in waiting until both humans and gods could not keep the world alive any longer, and then attack to destroy humankind. However, as with most of Mexica’s deities, there is duality in Tzitzimime, as they were both protectors of the feminine and progenitors of mankind, but also dangerous and ferocious, especially in periods of cosmic instability.
The Tzitzimime resided in Tamoanchan, a paradisiacal realm in the skies, and were associated with the stars, especially the stars that can be seen around the sun during a solar eclipse, which was interpreted as the Tzitzimime attacking the sun.
Knowing the nature and purpose of the Tzitzimime, a special Aztec ceremony called Xiuhmolpilli (“The Tying Together of the Years”) was held to help ensure that the cosmos continue to exist every 52 years - the length of an Aztec century/cycle.
A ‘New Fire’ ritual took place at the end of every 52-year cycle. In this ritual all Aztec hearths but one were extinguished. From that remaining flame a new fire was kindled in the promise of a fresh beginning to all. If a fire could not be coaxed into life, dire consequences could ensue: darkness would descend upon the Aztecs and the terrifying Tzitzimime would come to tear apart all mortal beings. If the fire succeeded the Tzitzimime would wait for another cycle to fulfill their ultimate goal.
However, while deeply feared by the Mexicas, these celestial beings had their limitations. They didn’t appear in any rituals during the months in which the land is parched (dry season), they only attack in total darkness, and they are more powerful on the 52nd (and final) year of the cycle.
Protection against the Tzitzimime was most necessary for children, as these ferocious creatures preferred attacking youngsters.
Tzitzimime attacks occurred most often during the rainy months, near and during the New Fire ceremony, during solar eclipses (when the moon is said to eat the sun), and in dark moonless nights.
The Cihuateteo (Divine Women) are similar in nature to the Tzitzimime. However, as Cihuateteo were once human, they are much less powerful than the Tzitzimime, who have a god-like nature and divine origin.
-Graulich, Michel, ‘Los dioses del altiplano central’, Arqueología Mexicana No.20 p32, 1996, Mexico.
-Klein, C.F., The Devil and the Skirt. An iconographic inquiry into the prehispanic nature of the Tzitzimime, U.C.L.A, Los Angeles.
-Sahagún, Fray Bernadino de, Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, Comments by Angel María Garibay, 6th ed., Editorial Porrúa, 1985, Mexico City, Mexico.