Templo Mayor, Human Sacrifice, and Cihuateteo of Mexico City

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When we think of vampires today, the most common image would likely be pale skin, long fangs, maybe a cape, and Victorian garb. That's popular media talking, though, that can be traced back to places like the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood. But the concept of vampires goes much farther back than the 1800s and is present in nearly every part of the world.

In Mexico, during the reign of the Aztecs from the 13th to the 16th century, they had legends of things that could easily fit in with vampiric folklore. Only...not the romanticized literary or film version we have today. Vampires from folklore worldwide, including Aztec lore, tend to be horrific in the "oh, hell no!" kind of way.

The Aztec culture and history are simply full of fascinating topics and places, like Templo Mayor, where the cihuateteo were said to roam.

Pronunciation & Meaning of "Templo Mayor"

The meaning of Templo Mayor is straightforward in Spanish.
Templo = Temple, Mayor = Main -> Main Temple​

And the pronunciation is relatively simple for English speakers as long as they know a few finer details. Templo is pronounced like it looks only the "o" at the end is a shorter version than what you might be included to say when reading it aloud. Mayor isn't pronounced like the English word for an elected head of a city, but instead is more like "mah-yore." You can listen to a native Spanish speaker say it right here on Forvo.com: Templo Mayor.

What Is Templo Mayor?

Templo Mayor, also known as the Great Temple, was a major Aztec temple in the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, now modern-day Mexico City. It was the main religious and ceremonial center of the Aztec capital.

Ruins of a stone foundation, with a large stone Catholic church in the background.
Ruins of Templo Mayor in Mexico City.

The construction of Templo Mayor began in the 14th century and went through several expansions over the years. The temple was dedicated to two Aztec deities: Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun, and Tlaloc, the god of rain and agriculture.

A large stone carving of a snake's head.
A snake head carving at Templo Mayor.

Templo Mayor was an imposing structure with two main pyramids built on each other. The temple complex was adorned with elaborate sculptures, carvings, and murals depicting various gods, mythical creatures, and historical events. The site also housed a sacred plaza, altars, shrines, and other structures related to Aztec rituals and ceremonies.

Computer rendering of a stepped pyramid.
Rendering of what Templo Mayor may have looked like.

Unfortunately, much of Templo Mayor was destroyed in 1521 when the Spanish conquistadores, led by Hernán Cortés, conquered Tenochtitlan. The pious conquerors wasted no time performing their God-given duty of ransacking the temples, including Templo Mayor, and looting every piece of precious gold and valuables they could get their righteous hands on. Hernán Cortés, the destroyer-in-chief, ordered the capital wiped out and replaced with a God-approved Mediterranean-style city.

The Spanish church, later known as the main cathedral, was erected on the very spot where the Aztec's holiest ground once stood (using the stones ripped from Templo Mayor), as if to say, "We've conquered your gods, and now we'll impose our own religion. And if you don't follow it, we'll murder your ass and your whole family—and your dog, too." Of course, it was God's will for the Spanish invaders to erase any trace of indigenous culture and eradicate the rich history and tradition of the Aztecs.

A wall made up of stone carved skulls.
A portion of an old wall from Templo Mayor. More here at science.org's Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital.

But lo and behold, in the 20th century, as modern development took place and archaeological excavations occurred, the buried secrets of the Spanish conquistadores and Church were found. Templo Mayor resurfaced, exposing the magnificent civilization that once thrived before the Spanish zealots—I mean, holy...warriors...doing God's will?—attempted to wipe it off the face of the Earth.

While attempting to pull off a full-on genocide, the virtuous Spanish conquerors and infallible Holy Church nearly destroyed the Aztec legend of a creature known as cihuateteo. Back then, and still today, some people claim that it was all because the Aztecs performed human sacrifice.

History of Human Sacrifice

The Aztec beliefs and practices were deeply intertwined with their religious devotion. Among their rituals, one stands out: the sacrificial offering of humans.

I'm sure you've heard of that. I'd actually be kind of surprised if you hadn't.

The Aztec creation myth tells a story of gods sacrificing themselves to create the world we know today, and the Aztec people believed that they had to honor this sacrifice by offering up human lives to maintain the balance of the cosmos and, hence, all of creation.

Okay, that wasn't the only reason for ritualistic human sacrifice. It was also done as a means of social and political control, where rulers ordered people killed so that they could solidify their dominion and maintain their empire.

Good thing we have absolutely nothing like that today anywhere in the world, thanks to those pious conquistadores...😬

You can read even more about ritualistic human sacrifice in the BBC's article The Templo Mayor: A place for human sacrifices.

The Legendary Cihuateteo

In addition to their firmly held religious beliefs, the Aztecs strongly believed in revenants.

1. a person who has returned, especially from the dead.
2. if you play D&D, you know exactly what this word means

And it's a damn good thing that the conquistadores weren't successful in their goal of thoroughly wiping the Aztec culture and knowledge from the face of the planet; otherwise, we might not know about the cihuateteo when they come hunting us.

According to Aztec legend, some women who died in childbirth were reanimated as revenants—undead—with characteristics shockingly similar to folkloric vampires from other countries.

In Aztec culture, the cihuateteo were viewed in a similar fashion as male warriors who died in battle because, to the Aztecs, childbirth was a kind of battle. A woman in labor captured the spirit of her child in the same way a warrior captured his opponents in battle—only, perhaps, the woman had to fight with more ferocity and determination to bring the child into the world.

Cihuateteo in the Classical Nahuatl language is Cihuātēteoh, or the singular version Cihuātēotl. It means "Divine Woman" or "Divine Women." An alternative spelling is "civatateo."
Learn how to pronounce "cihuateteo" with Tecpaocelotl Castillo on YouTube.

Some of the women who died in the childbirth battle had their souls transformed, becoming a cihuateteo. Women who died in this way were given special funerary rites, and their bodies were considered to have special powers. She was given an armed entourage, which included the father, his friends, midwives, and other women—all to protect her body against male warriors looking to loot and capitalize on the special powers bestowed on her body. Some warriors would chop off the fingers of the corpses of the women who died in childbirth and attach them to their shields as they believed it would blind their enemies.

On five days of the Aztec calendar, the cihuateteo would descend upon the Earth and terrorize the locals. Some haunted crossroads, while others took a more aggressive path...

While on Earth, they had swirling, unkempt fiery orange hair, wore skirts fastened with snake belts, and bore staffs topped with heads. Some were even said to wear flayed human skin as clothing, and others were described as shriveled—desiccated—with pale skin covered in white chalk and crossbones painted on their dresses.

The cihuateteo who didn't stick around to haunt crossroads would shapeshift into beautiful women (you know...without fiery orange hair and flayed human skin clothing). They would seduce men—only to drive them insane just before making them drop dead. Then, the cihuateteo would give birth to a vampire child and murder infants to feed the newborn's lust for blood. Other cihuateteo would steal children away at night, and no one would ever see them again.

As you might have guessed, the cihuateteo were out to claim another soul to replace the one they lost during childbirth. In modern Mexico, you might find maize cakes at crossroad shrines placed there to placate the cihuateteo, in hopes to distract them long enough for the sun to rise, as the sun's rays instantly killed them.

Sounds pretty vampiric to me. The legend also shares some similarities with what we know as "bogeymen." I've written about some of those as well (links below).

The site of Templo Mayor has since been extensively studied and excavated, revealing valuable insights into Aztec culture, religion, and architecture. Today, the Templo Mayor complex is an important archaeological site—and a giant metaphorical middle finger because it's not so simple to erase an entire culture—and a popular tourist attraction, with a museum adjacent to the ruins that display numerous artifacts found at the site.

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