A to Z: Tzitzimitl

Published April 23, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

I wonder if Nahautl names look as daunting to native speakers of other languages as they do to native speakers of English?  Though Tzitzimitl is actually fairly tame, as Nahautl names go.  (Quechua names can also be pretty intimidating.  Actually, maybe it’s just long names in any language that isn’t either Germanic or Romance that look impossible.  I even stumble over Greek names sometimes…)  Of course, right now, I have a killer visual migraine going on, and everything looks daunting.  So I should just get on with the plot and hope the caffeine kicks in to get rid of the flashing lights in front of my eyes.  (I wonder how many people in older times thought they were crazy and/or having visions just because they had an odd form of headache?)

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

So, this is the way Tzitzimitl looks in most of the MegaTen games.  (Her appearance in the two Persona 2 games was a lot like this, only toned down a bit, and as to Devil Children…well, the less said about that the better all around, it seems from what little I know about it.)  In Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker and Shin Megami Tensei IV/IV Apocalypse, her compendium entry says this:

Aztec goddesses of night and fear.

They constantly attack the sun and cause solar eclipses.  They demand a sacrifice once every 52 years.

In Persona Q, on the other hand, her compendium entry says this:

Goddess of Aztec myth governs night and fear, symbolizing death and evil.  Her war with the sun caused a catastrophic solar eclipse.  She seeks a sacrifice every 52 years.

Obviously, you notice there are some discrepancies there.  The first three games refer to Tzitzimitl as more a type of being than a single goddess, and the fourth one mentions a single goddess.

The first three are in the right there.  Tzitzimitl is called a “deity” by her Wikipedia page, but it also specifies very clearly that Tzitzimitl is the name of a type of deity (Tzitzimimeh in the plural).  I think an apt comparison in that regard would be the Furies:  they’re always referred to simply by the name of the group, rather than by individual names.  (Though I seem to recall a few ancient sources did provide individual names of Furies, they weren’t in common use in the literature.  Which only makes sense, since they’re the personification of a concept.)

Anyway, however you want to look at the Tzitzimemeh, Persona Q‘s “symbolizing death and evil” is definitely out of line.  Even “night and fear” might be pushing it, if Wikipedia is at all accurate.  (Which is never a sure thing, but what it does say accords well with what I know of the Mexica in particular, and pre-Columbian societies in general.)  Which isn’t to say that the Tzitzimemeh weren’t associated with the night and fear, of course.

The main thing about the Tzitzimemeh — the only way they were “seen” — was that they were stars.  In particular, they were the stars that appeared around the sun during an eclipse.  Supposedly, they were believed to be seen around the sun because they were attacking it to force it into submission in the form of the eclipse.  And why would they want to cause an eclipse?  Because that would let them travel down to earth and eat people, of course.

So, yes, they were absolutely feared.  But they were also associated with midwives and pregnant women.  (That seems to be a theme with destructive goddesses among the Mexica.  Maybe because of all the blood associated with childbirth?  Or because it can actually be a violent event, not to mention one that frequently ended the life of the mother?)

As to the games’ claims of the Tzitzimemeh demanding sacrifices every 52 years, that’s a bit misleading.  What that actually means is that every time their calendar cycled through, they performed what’s known in English as the New Fire ceremony, which they called the xiuhmolpilli, meaning the “Binding of the Years.”  Said calendar cycle, of course, was 52 years long.  And since the Tzitzimemeh were also associated with the potential destruction inherent in changes, that meant that if they weren’t propitiated during such a massive change as the change of the calendar cycle, then they might use their powers to destroy instead of to help with rebirth — both powers being in their repertoire.

Tzitzimitl from the 16th century Codex Magliabechano. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I have to admit, I’d be scared of something that looked like ^that^, too!  Between that appearance and what Tzitzimemeh were supposed to do during eclipses, it’s easy to understand why the Franciscan friars writing all this down decided that Tzitzimitl was an evil demon.  But that’s contaminated how Tzitzimemeh are seen to this day.  The real version — as is typical in polytheistic cultures — is powerful and dangerous, but can be a force for good or ill, depending in part on how humanity behaves towards her.

Interestingly, both Tzitzimitl’s real association with eclipses and her MegaTen appearance puts me very much in mind of a different goddess in the MegaTen series, but only very rarely.  Usually, she just looks like a woman in a black dress (like a lounge singer or a madam, depending on the game’s art), but once in a while she looks like this:

Image copyright Atlus, provided by the MegaTen Wiki, click for link…

Her name is Nyx, the Greek goddess of the night.  Who is one of those rare figures for whom there is no agreement even in the ancient sources about her.  Mostly, she just serves as a personification with no particular role.  (Though far back in the mists of pre-history, that may not have been the case.  Or maybe it was.  No way of knowing.)  This version of her appearance started in the Snow Queen quest of the original Persona, which wasn’t a mere sub-quest, but an entirely alternate version of the story, completely different from the main quest…

Again, Atlus’s image, from the MegaTen Wiki, and you can get there from here…

That’s actually an image of Nyx you don’t want to see:  it means you screwed up and got the bad ending.  But it also serves as a

because there will be spoilers for the Snow Queen quest and for (strangely enough) Persona 3 from here on in, so please don’t go any further if you think you might ever want to play them.

Basically, the Snow Queen quest in Persona is an alternate story in which your goal has nothing to with Maki, the character who’s at the center of the main story, but instead focuses on a particularly popular teacher named Saeko.  The plot is complicated, and it’s been awhile since I played it (that was back when the PSP remake first came out), so the details are a tiny bit fuzzy, even with the wiki’s minuscule summary.  At the very beginning of the game, before demons start appearing and things start going off the rails, when you’re talking to people around your school, you learn about the Snow Queen mask that’s been used in school plays at your school for ages, and how it’s supposedly haunted.  Ms. Saeko has a particular reaction to it, because (as you learn later) the mask’s curse claimed a friend of hers when she was a student.  And after you activate the Snow Queen quest, the Snow Queen freezes the whole school, and the mask claims Ms. Saeko as its next victim, with the intention of sacrificing her to summon Nyx (under the name “Night Queen”) to bring on eternal night.  This is how the manga adaptation depicts her form for the final battle:

You know the drill, right? Atlus owns the image, MegaTen Wiki provided it…

(I’d have used the game graphic, but it’s just little combat sprites, so it’s not very clear.  The people supporting her represent Maki and Kandori, the primary figures from the main plotline of the game.)

Obviously, you defeat the Night Queen and stop Nyx from putting the entire world to sleep forever.

Or do you?

Atlus…MegaTen Wiki….link…

This is a screenshot from the anime cutscene right before the final boss battle in Persona 3.  That big form looming over the party?  That’s Nyx Avatar, the final boss…

…and guess what happens if you don’t defeat her?  (Or possibly “him.”  It’s complicated…)

Yup, you guessed it:  eternal night is introduced to the world.  So I guess I was wrong before when I complained that the new breed of Persona games had utterly discarded everything about the originals:  they did at least recycle a large plot element from the Snow Queen quest…

I know it sounds like I’ve completely derailed here, in that none of this has anything to do with Tzitzimitl, apart from some character design similarity, but it actually does connect.  Because what else is inducing eclipses but trying to bring night about when there isn’t supposed to be a night?  Furthermore, the Mexica were extremely concerned about the sun just plain going away.  (Possibly due to the fact that according to their beliefs, four suns had already died, and the world was now on its fifth.  And of course all (human) life dies without the sun, and the world has to start over.)  So part of the reason they sacrificed so faithfully to the Tzitzimemeh during the New Fire ceremony and other periods of transition may have been to plead with them to stop attacking the sun, begging them not to end the world by putting it into eternal night.

Maybe I’m overthinking things.  Especially in terms of connecting that to the similar character design between Tzitzimitl and the Persona version of Nyx.  But it just doesn’t feel coincidental to me.

3 comments on “A to Z: Tzitzimitl

  • My first visit here, having discovered your page via the main Blogging from A to Z page. To me as a gamer and a mythology fan, I had to visit. Going to have to check back through your posts.

    I studied the Mesoamericans in college but had forgotten about Tzitzimemeh – my favourite was Quetzalcoatl and that indirectly led to our dog getting called Quetzal.

    My A to Z is on the origins of video-games…in the sense of inspiration and storytelling. Some games have mythological links, but not all. Today’s post is https://rolandclarke.com/2018/04/23/t-is-for-tomb-raider/

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