She is the wife of Mictlantecuhtli, and together they preside over the Land of the Dead, Mictlan, in Aztec mythology.
Interestingly, not much seems to be written about either of them, and even less about Mictlancihuatl. On the other hand, maybe it's not so surprising. Thanks to our Christian background, our culture has particular ideas about what death and a "Land of the Dead" might be all about. A God and Goddess of Death, from the point of view of our culture, would have to be demons, or even the devil -- in any case, not something good.
This association, combined with "All Saints Day" / "Halloween" / "Día de los muertos", leads people to believe that Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl would have to be figures to fear. Take, for example, this guy, who would assume that Mictlancihuatl would cause him harm -- I suppose to lure him into her realm of Mictlan.
To me, all this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of both death and goddess-ness.
Death is just another passage in the cycle of life. Just because it is painful for those who have not yet died doesn't mean it has to be painful for the one who is experiencing that passage and who is going to or who has reached that other state -- the state of being that is post-physical life.
Besides, if it is painful for those who have not yet died, that is because they are being selfish -- they are thinking of their own loss -- the loss of love, the loss of material resources the person would have brought to them, the loss of shared experiences with the one who has died.
If the iconography of death is "gruesome", that is because we, firmly stuck in our physical existence, feel repulsed by what happens to the physical body when it dies -- when the spirit of life no longer inhabits that physical form.Consider also "goddess-ness".
Goddesses are representations of the feminine, the female. We are accustomed to representations of some aspects of the feminine: life-giving, nurturing, caring, comforting (the "mother"); sweet, beautiful, innocent (the "virgin"); wise (the "crone"). The fact that western imagery of the crone involves an ugly, old woman hints to us that there is something else going on that has been hidden.
What has been hidden, or perhaps what had been combined by Christianity with the concept of the wise woman, is the role of the feminine in aspects of life AFTER life has ended.
And that role is the one of Mictlancihuatl.
- a wise woman who nurtures you into your new existence post-physical life, instead of an ugly woman who lures you to your death
- a woman who cries on your behalf to ease your shock of moving out of your comfortable physical existence
- a woman who lovingly watches over you as you continue your existence in your new "life"
To me, that is the nature of Mictlancihuatl.
Also, consider again the image of Mictlancihuatl above...
On first look, it might appear that she is devouring the person we can see in her mouth. But, there is another way to view this.
Notice his leg, outside her mouth. Consider: he is not being devoured... he is emerging from her mouth. Consider: she is not devouring him, she is giving birth to him.
In this view, she is assisting his emergence into his new life. That he is emerging from her mouth and not her womb is emblematic of his emergence not into his physical life (which results from emerging from her womb) but into his post-physical life (which results from his emerging from her "other end", so to speak).