Mexican Brujx, Part 2: Shapeshifting Witches

David Bowles
5 min readOct 9, 2019

Many pre-Colombian indigenous cultures had deep, complex belief in therianthropy, the ability of certain people to assume animal form. Evidence for this practice in Mesoamerica goes back to the Olmecs, in whose art we find multiple representations of the were-jaguar.

This particular sort of witchcraft was adopted by the Nahua peoples as well (such as the Mexica or “Aztecs”). In Nahuatl, a generic name for shape-shifting witches is mocuepani, meaning “one who transforms.”

Two mocuepanimeh. All images by Charlene Bowles

There are several varieties.

Witch owl, lechuza, or chīchtli


A generic Nahuatl word for “owl,” but also a sort of witch. In Mexican and Chicano Spanish, she’s a “lechuza,” a witch who can shift into an owl (“chīchtli mocuepa,” is the phrase in Nahuatl). The magic she uses was called “chīchyōtl” or “witch-owl sorcery.”

Rough pronunciation: CHEECHT-lee. Plural chīchtin.

A pair of bird-mages.

There is a very similar shape-shifting witch in Southern Mexico, known in Yucatec Mayan as a “wáayom ch’ich” (bird-mage).

That word “ch’ich” has cognates in multiple Mayan languages, suggesting that Nahuatl “chīchtli” may be a loanword (with the -tli absolute ending tacked on to the borrowed term).

The connection suggests that some “lechuzas” can shift into multiple bird forms, and indeed the Florentine Codex says the following about the shapeshifter: “tōtolin, chicuahtli, tecolotl mocuepa” (she can turn into a bird, a screech owl, a horned owl).

Nāhualli transforming himself


This powerful shape-shifting witch/wizard is adept at multiple types of magic. They bear…

David Bowles

A Mexican American author & translator from South Texas. Teaches literature & Nahuatl at UTRGV. VP of the Texas Institute of Letters.