Mictecacihuatl: the Goddess of Death in Aztec Religious Mythology

16th Annual Dia De Los Muertos Festival
Xavier Quijas Yxayotl 'Splendorous Mictlan' and dancers perform at Dia De Los Muertos.   Lee Roth /Getty Images

In the mythology of the Aztec people, the ancient culture of central Mexico, Mictecacihuatl is literally "lady of the dead." Along with her husband, Miclantecuhtl, Mictecacihuatl ruled over the land of Mictlan, the lowest level of the underworld where the dead reside. 

In mythology, Mictecacihuatl's role is to guard the bones of the dead and govern over over the festivals of the dead. These festivals eventually added some of their customs to the modern Day of the Dead, which is also heavily influenced by Christian Spanish traditions.

 

The Legend

Unlike the Mayan civilization, the Aztec culture did not have a highly sophisticated system of written language but instead relied on a system of logographic symbols combined with phonetic syllable signs that probably came into use during Spanish colonial occupation. Our understanding of the mythology of the Mayans comes from the scholarly interpretation of these symbols, combined with accounts made in early colonial times. And many of these customs have been passed along for centuries with surprisingly few changes. Modern Day of the Dead celebrations would likely be fairly familiar to Aztecs. 

Fairly elaborate stories surround Mictecacihuatl's husband, Miclantecuhtl, but fewer about her specifically. It is believed that she was born and sacrificed as an infant, then become the mate of Miclantecuhtl. Together, these rulers of the Mictlan had power over all three types of souls dwelling in the underworld—those who died normal deaths; heroic deaths; and non-heroic deaths.

 

In one version of the myth, Mictecacihuatl and MIclantecuhtl are thought to have served a role in collecting the bones of the dead, so that they could be collected by other gods, returned to the land of the living where they would be restored to allow the creation of new races. The fact that many races exist is because the bones were dropped and mixed together before they made their way back to the land of the living for use by the gods of creation.

The worldly goods buried with the newly dead were intended as offerings to Mictecacihuatl and Miclantecuhtl to ensure their safety in the underworld. 

Symbols and Iconography

Mictecacihuatl is often represented with a defleshed body and with jaws wide open, said to be in order that she can swallow the stars and make them invisible during the day. Aztecs depicted Mictecacihuatl with a skull face, a skirt made from serpents, and sagging breasts.

Worship

The Aztecs believed that Mictecacihuatl presided over their festivals in honor of the dead, and these celebrations were eventually absorbed with surprisingly few changes into modern Christianity during the Spanish occupation of Mesoamerica. To this day, the Day of the Dead celebrated by the devoutly Christian Hispanic culture of Mexico and ​Central America, as well as by immigrants to other lands, owes its origin to the ancient Aztec mythology of Mictecacihuatl and Miclantecuhtl, wife and husband who rule the afterlife. 

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Cline, Austin. "Mictecacihuatl: the Goddess of Death in Aztec Religious Mythology." ThoughtCo, Jan. 25, 2018, thoughtco.com/mictecacihuatl-aztec-goddess-of-death-248587. Cline, Austin. (2018, January 25). Mictecacihuatl: the Goddess of Death in Aztec Religious Mythology. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mictecacihuatl-aztec-goddess-of-death-248587 Cline, Austin. "Mictecacihuatl: the Goddess of Death in Aztec Religious Mythology." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/mictecacihuatl-aztec-goddess-of-death-248587 (accessed April 26, 2018).