Friday, July 6, 2018

Zultépec-Tecoaque Part 4: Daily Life of the city's inhabitants

Examples of the beautifully crafted pottery found at Zultépec. I particularly liked the graceful shape of the pitcher, as well as the painted designs on the bowls. It is not clear whether these were locally made or imports. In either case, those who used them were almost certainly high-status individuals. Since Zultépec was located on a major trade crossroads, these artifacts might well have come from elsewhere in the Aztec Empire, or beyond. In my last two postings, I focused on temples, altars, gods, and the meeting place of the elite. In this one, I'll show you some of the homes of the city's residents, as well as artifacts of their daily lives.


Site map showing the two major residential areas. We will first look at the North Residential Area, located at the top of the map. The West Residential area is found on the left side. In Parts 2 and 3 of this series, we looked at the ceremonial areas in the center and bottom of the map.

The North Residential Area

The habitations are grouped very close together and connected by narrow passageways. Since the surrounding countryside is either level or gently sloped, I wondered why these dwellings were packed together, rather that spread out. According to a nearby sign, "the purpose was to ensure the safety of dwellers." An invader would have to find a way through a dense maze of structures, defended by local warriors familiar with every twist and turn. Zultépec was an outpost of the Aztec Empire, on the frontier with its traditional enemy, the Tlaxcaltecas.


Map detail of the North Residential Area. The rooms are grouped around rectangular courtyards. These can be seen in the upper left, center right, and lower right of the map. While most of the rooms are relatively small, several are quite large. They could have been occupied by wealthy merchants or members of the elite. On the other hand, they might have been workshops for one or more families.



Meet the Zultepecanos. The two figures in the middle are male, with females on either side. The men wear conical hats with brims and their pleated tunics end at mid-thigh. The man on the left has a strap over his shoulder, from which a small bag is suspended. The women both wear some sort of hood on their heads, possibly a shawl resembling the traditional Mexican rebozo. Their skirts extend to their ankles and are topped by a mid-thigh-length blouse. All these appear to be high-status individuals. Ordinary people would have worn much simpler garments and, in any case, statues of them probably wouldn't have been made.


Artist's conception of the habitations. The walls were made from the easily worked volcanic stone that was plentiful in the area. They would have been covered with lime plaster. The roofs would have been of wood and thatched materials that have long since disappeared.

Raised room with a step at the threshold. Rooms like this were used for sleeping and moments when privacy was desired. Most daily living would have occurred in the patios and plazas upon which the rooms opened. One reason to raise the rooms was to protect against flooding during the rainy season.


Orange tripod bowl, used for preparing or serving food. This is day-to-day kitchenware, unlike the finely crafted and painted bowls seen in the first photo. Food served in a bowl like this would have included cultivated plants, such as maiz (corn), beans, squash, amaranth, chia. The maiz would have been ground into flour on stone metates and then prepared as tortillas or tamales. In addition, the edible parts of wild plants such as maguey were also consumed. Meat would have been obtained from domesticated turkeys and dogs, as well as wild game, including deer, peccaries (wild pigs), fish, rabbits, and other small animals.


This room has an elaborate entry and a curiously-shaped stone structure behind it. The entrance, along with the beautiful flagstone floor, suggests an elite residence. The room opens on a large patio, which connects with several other rooms, suggesting an extended family compound. The cylindrical structure in the foreground is probably a water cistern, used for storage during the dry season.



Earthenware pitcher, another item of everyday use. Compare it to the delicate pitcher in the first photo. I can image this one being used to dip water from the stone cistern seen in the previous photo.


Another room with a threshold at its entrance. This one contains a fire pit against its back wall. Hearths like this would have been used both for cooking and heating. This is part of a multi-room complex.



Delicate vase with a fanciful design. This piece would have definitely graced a high-status home. The animal depicted on both sides of the vase appears be an octopus, or possibly a squid. A local artist who portrayed such animals could only have obtained them from the Gulf Coast. It is also possible that the vase itself originated on the Gulf Coast, with the design inspired by local sea life. Both scenarios fit well with Zultépec's role as a trade outpost.


A multi-room dwelling with a two-stepped platform outside its entrance. The flat area in the foreground is part of a large patio. The purpose of the platforms is unclear. Similar structures that I have seen elsewhere were sleeping areas. However, that is unlikely here, because they are placed in the corner of the patio, outside the dwelling's rooms.


The West Residential Area

The West Residential Area is also compact and contains several patios. There are at least four patios, one in each corner of the residential area. Most of the structures are grouped in the center.


Complex of rooms, looking north. The rooms are stepped down, as they descend the slope on which Zultépec is built. Most of these rooms are relatively small, indicating a somewhat lower status than those of larger size.



Pot lid, decorated with a pair of fanged and feathered feline faces. Pottery such as this would have been used for special occasions, or perhaps for ceremonial purposes. Only a high-status family could have afforded such pottery.

These two odd, circular structures are in the southeast patio of the residential area. There was no sign to explain their significance. They are too large to be the base of pillars. It is possible they might be water storage containers that have become filled with dirt. However, why two, side-by-side? I also thought of altars.  Occasionally, I have found circular altars in other pre-hispanic ruins, but rarely, if ever, in Aztec sites. Again, if they are altars, why two, side-by-side? If anyone has any information or thoughts on this, I would be glad to hear them.



Censer with the head of a bear. This beautifully crafted piece would  have been used to burn copal incense during religious rites. These might have occurred either at one of the temples in the plazas, or at a private ceremony at a household altar. The lid of the censer is vented to draw air to the flame, while the chimney top allows the fragrant smoke to escape. Bernal Diaz del Castillo was a young officer among Cortés conquistadors. He reported that, when the Spanish arrived at a new city on their route of conquest, they were invariably "fumigated" by native priests using devices like this before they were allowed to meet with the local chief.


An unusually large room, with an attached anteroom at the far end. I have rarely found rooms this large in the residential areas of other pre-hispanic sites. When I have encountered them, they were dwellings reserved for top-level elites and royalty. However, such extremely high-status dwellings are generally found close to temples or ceremonial structures located in restricted areas. These areas are usually set apart from those occupied by the lower classes. In this case, the room is simply part of the general residential complex. One possibility is that spaces like this were workshops to produce items for export. Among the most important of Zultépec's products was pulque, a mildly alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant.


Pulque vase in the shape of a maguey plant. In the Post-Classic Era, the area around Zultépec abounded with wild maguey plants. In fact, when Carole and I visited, the fields around the archeological site were planted with agave, a species of maguey used to create tequila, the Mexican national drink. Maguey had many attributes useful to pre-hispanic people, including its fibers and its sharp spines. However, the most important of these uses was pulque. While some of this fermented drink was locally consumed, it was also Zultépec's major export product. Mayahuel, the Goddess of Maguey, was the consort of Quetzalcoatl. As we have seen, the Plumed Serpent's temple is the largest in the whole city, and is located in its most important plaza. Vessels like the one above were recovered near Quetzalcoatl's temple.


Another room of substantial size, with a raised platform in the rear portion. In "Everyday Life of the Aztecs", Warwick Bray describes the furnishings of a home: "To our eyes, even the richest house would have appeared bare and unfurnished. Wickerwork baskets or wooden chests held clothes and most of the family's belongings. Everybody, rich and poor alike, slept on reed mats, which were sometimes covered with canopies. Similar mats, placed on a wooden or earthen dais, were the most common form of seat...Other items of furniture included low tables, carved and gilded screens, wall hangings, rugs, and braziers in which burned aromatic woods."


Jewelry like this was worn only by those of the highest status. The two ear spools in the upper right and left are made from jade. In the middle, the white pieces forming the "eyes", "nose", and "teeth", are carved from seashells, as is the necklace below them. The butterfly-shaped piece at the bottom is made from serpentine. All of these were imported. The jade came from the Motagua River Valley, in faraway Guatemala, while the shell items and the serpentine are products of the Gulf Coast.

This completes Part 4 of my Zultépec-Tecoaque series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Zultépec-Tecoaque Part 3: The North and South Plazas

Temple of Mictlantecuhtli, God of Death and Ruler of the Underworld. The temple is located in the Plaza Superior Sur, directly south of the Plaza Principal (see Part 2 of this series). In this posting, I'll show you the temples, altars, and other structures of both the Plaza Superior Sur and the Plaza Inferior Norte. The names of these two plazas refer to their location in relation to the Plaza Principal. Both of them border it, with the Plaza Superior Sur to the south and slightly above it on the slope, while the Plaza Inferior Norte is to the north and slightly below.


Plaza Superior Sur

Map of Plaza Superior Sur. The top of the map is oriented to the north. Just The God of Death's temple is in the upper left. It has three chambers, with a fire pit in the innermost section. Below it, and slightly to the left, is a single structure that is, in reality, three separate altars. In the center of the site map is a large square structure which may either be an altar or the base of a small temple. To the right is the Temple of Tlaloc, the Rain God.


Mictlantecuhtli's temple, viewed from the southwest. Carole is standing under the tree to the right, reading the explanatory sign. Mictlan means "The Place of Death", while Tecuhtli translates as "Lord". Hence, Mictlantecuhtli is the Lord of the Place of Death. Pre-hispanic people believed that the underworld had nine levels and heaven had thirteen. Your ultimate destination after death was determined not by the way in which you lived, but by how you died. For example, warriors who died in battle and women who died in childbirth both went to the House of the Sun, a place of great honor. The agony of giving birth was equated with the agony of a battle death. Interestingly, traders who perished while traveling on business also went to the House of the Sun, thus showing the importance of trade to pre-hispanic societies.


How the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli would have appeared. It was a one-story structure with a thatched roof and a broad staircase containing four steps and a short ramp just to the right of center. The God of Death had a wife named Mictecacihuatl, whose job was to tear the flesh off the bones of recent arrivals to Mictlan. The God and Goddess of Death dwelt in the ninth level of Mictlan, its lowest and darkest level. They are another example of the pre-hispanic belief in the duality of all things. Pre-hispanic people also believedthat the stars were swallowed by Mictlantecuhtli at the break of each day. Stars were not all that was swallowed. Some of the ceremonies in and around the temples of the God of Death involved ritual cannibalism .


Stone sculpture of Mictlantecuhtli. He is always portrayed with a fleshless skull containing large teeth. Sometimes the skull stands alone, but other times he is shown with a full body. When Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent) and Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror) defeated the Earth Monster and created our current world, they assigned the underworld to Mictlantecuhtli and his wife. Later, when Quetzalcoatl sought to populate the new world, he needed working materials. However, when he asked the God of Death for the bones of the gods of previous worlds, Mictlantecuhtli refused. Not deterred, Quetzalcoatl stole the necessary bones from Mictlan, and raced for the exit. However, the God of Death created a pit as a trap. Quetzalcoatl fell into it, breaking the bones into different sized pieces. Although he ultimately escaped with the shattered bones, the result was the creation of people in various sizes.


The three altars. As mentioned previously, these altars are shown on the site map as one structure. Why are there three? What ceremonies were performed on each?, What gods were honored? All this remains a mystery to me, because the altars lacked an explanatory sign.


The large central platform may have been either an altar or the base of a small temple. If there was a temple, it would likely have been constructed of perishable materials which have long since vanished. Once again, there was no explanatory sign.


Temple of Tlaloc. This structure is located on the east side of the Plaza Superior Sur, and faces west. This shows a relationship with the sun, as it both rises and sets. It also ties the temple to the planet Venus, a symbol of regeneration with which Tlaloc is closely associated. The Rain God was also the patron of agriculture and fertility. Worship of a rain or storm god is very ancient, harking back to the earliest days of plant cultivation. Similar to Mictlantecuhtli, Tlaloc had a female consort. Her name was Chalchiuhtlicue, Goddess of Lakes and Streams.


How Tlaloc's temple once looked. Like the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli, it is a one-level, thatched-roof structure that sits on a platform. The broad staircase is divided by two ramps. The temple has two rooms and the inner enclosure contains a fire pit.


The inner sanctum. The roof was supported by two pillars, the stumps of which can be seen on either side of a fire pit. Archeologists discovered offerings in the inner sanctum, including a blue vessel, decorated by black lines, along with fragments of hematite and sulphur. Both of these minerals are related to fire. Chemical analysis showed that they were quarried at Popocatepetlthe nearby volcano that is one of the most active in Mexico. In addition to these artifacts, archeologists also found sea urchin spines and two beads made from a seashell. The combination of artifacts relating to both fire and water is another example of the pre-hispanic concept of duality.


Funerary urn decorated with the face of Tlaloc. The Rain God is easily identified by his bulging eyes and drooping fangs. Like the God of Death, Tlaloc has a connection to the dead. The Rain God ruled over Tlalocan, a lush, green, watery paradise which was the destination of those who died from drowning, lightning, and certain diseases related to water. Tlaloc's paradise was not part of the underworld, but was the 9th of the 13 levels of heaven. There is  a wonderful mural of Tlalocan at Teotihuacán, painted six hundred years before the Acolhua people founded Zultépec. This religious continuity was the result of less sophisticated newcomers adopting the civilized ways of those they settled among. The Acolhua were originally Chichimec nomads from the northern deserts. They adopted many of the cultural practices they found among the remnants of the Toltec civilization that had fallen prior to their arrival in the Valley of Mexico. The Toltecs, in turn, had adopted much of the cultural remnants of Teotihuacan, after that great city had been in ruins for centuries.


Plaza Inferior Norte

Map of the Plaza Inferior Norte. Once again, the top of the map is oriented to the north, while the bottom abuts the Plaza Principal. At the top of this map is a long, narrow structure called the Ceremonial Platform of Fire. On the left side of the map, the large, rectangular structure is the Salon of the Nobles. The open area of the plaza, which covers the eastern 2/3 of the total area, was probably a place for large civic/religious ceremonies, such as the New Fire Ceremony.


The Ceremonial Platform of Fire viewed from its south west side. The platform above contains several small fire pits, called thetlecuiles, in which copal and other fragrant materials were burned. The rising smoke was intended to please Xiuhtecuhtli, the Fire God. Since Paleolithic times, fire had been an extremely important part of human life. Control of it was the first great step in the development of human civilization. Fire was used for cooking, warmth, tool-making, protection from predators, signaling, and--increasingly, over the millennia--for religious and other ceremonial purposes.


The original appearance of the Platform of Fire. The long, narrow, rectangular platform is divided down the middle by a half-wall and was once covered by a thatched roof. There were many ceremonies practiced here, but the most important was the New Fire Ceremony. This religious event occurred not only in Zultépec but throughout the Aztec Empire and the rest of Mesoamerica. Pre-hispanic people were close observers of the natural world. They noticed the cyclical nature of astronomical events and, most importantly, how these tied to the seasons for planting and harvesting. Their astronomer-priests developed calendars to record and track the movements of heavenly bodies. The Aztecs, along with many other civilizations, followed two calendars, a 365-day secular calendar and a parallel 260-day religious calendar. The Aztec New Fire Ceremony was celebrated every 52 years, when the two calendars coincided. The end of the 52-year cycle was believed to be a time when the gods might choose to destroy the world (as they had done four times previously). The New Fire Ceremony celebrated the survival of the world and its new 52-year lease on life.


The Platform of Fire, viewed from the east end. Thetlecuiles were found only on the side of the platform facing the plaza. Five days before the New Fire Ceremony, every hearth in the Aztec Empire was extinguished. People also destroyed their everyday household goods and dumped the remains into rubbish pits. All unnecessary activity was suspended during these five suspenseful days. On the night of the Ceremony, astronomer-priests climbed the hill known as Huixachtlan, located on a peninsula near the Aztec's island capital of Tenochtitlan. They watched anxiously until the constellation Pleiades passed its zenith. This event established that the sun would rise again and the world would continue. To commemorate the moment, they removed the living heart from a sacrifice victim and lit a fire inside his chest. These flames were used to ignite a bonfire on the hilltop, visible for many miles. The victim's body was then tossed into the fire. Representatives from all over the Empire attended this ritual. Each lit a torch from the bonfire and carried it back to his home city or town. When Zultépec's torch bearer returned, he ignited a bonfire at the Platform of Fire. The Plaza Inferior Norte was already packed with the people of Zultépec, each with their own unlit torch. At the Fire Platform, they their lit torches and carried them home to re-ignite their hearth fires of their households.. Thus the cycle was completed and the world was renewed for another 52 years, no doubt with sighs of relief all around.


Xuihtecuhtli, the Aztec God of Fire. He is thought to be an updated, Aztec version of Huehueteotl, the Old, Old Fire God, who had been revered for millennia. However, while Huehueteotl is always portrayed as a very old man carrying a brazier (fire tray) on his head, Xuihtecuhtli is young and carries no brazier. Turquoise was the symbolic equivalent of fire and the Fire God was believed to live in a turquoise room located in the center of the earth. The center position was considered to be the most important of the five cardinal points (the other four being north, south, east, and west). Consequently, the sacred hearth in each Aztec home or temple was in its center, where a permanent fire was kept burning. Aztec emperors considered Xuihtecuhtli to be their patron and, when they were enthroned, they were thought to embody him. Interestingly, Xuihtecuhtli was also the patron of the long-distance traders, called pochteca. This, once again, reaffirms the importance of trade and the status of traders in ancient Mesoamerica.


The Salon of the Nobles is located on the west end of the Plaza Inferior Norte. No one knows what the people of Zultépec called this structure. "Salon of Nobles" is an archeologist's label. However, the building's purpose seems clear. Local rulers, priests and nobles met here to discuss problems and make decisions. In addition, elite astronomers made observations here in order to inform the leadership of the will of the gods. The broad plaza in front of the staircase would have been suitable for large civic ceremonies. To understand the role played by the elite group who met here, it is important to understand Zultépec's relationship with Texcoco, the great city to which it owed allegiance.  


Artist's conception of the Salon of Nobles in the Post-Classic Era. It is a large, rectangular platform with a broad staircase in front. The balustrades on either side of the staircase show the Talud-tablero architectural style inherited from Teotihuacán. The thatched roof was supported by six large stone pillars. The Acolhua people who lived in Zultépec were tribally related to those in Texcoco and were part of the constellation of cities and towns controlled by it. These communities paid tribute to the ruling family of Texcoco, either in goods or services, or sometimes both. Zultépec was far enough away from Texcoco that its tribute was most likely in goods. Texcoco allowed some of the cities and towns to retain their own ruling dynasties. However, in Zultépec and some others, Texcoco appears to have appointed local governors. Although they were sent by Texcoco's ruler, these governors could not have functioned without the support and cooperation of the local priests, warriors, and noble landowners. It was in this context that Zultépec's elite met in the Salon of the Nobles. Through Texcoco, this trading town became closely connected to the wider Nahuatl-speaking world, because Texcoco was one of the three great city states that formed the Aztec Triple Alliance.


Map showing the relationship between Zultépec and its parent city Texcoco. Notice how Zultépec (far right on the map) is almost equidistant from Teotihuacán, its Classic Era parent city, and Texcoco, the city state for which it performed the same function as a trading outpost during the Post-Classic Era. The Aztec Triple Alliance was a coalition of three Nahuatl-speaking city states: TexcocoTenochtitlán, and Tlacopan. Each controlled groups of cities and towns through colonization, marriage alliances, or conquest. Zultépec was one of the cities founded by Texcoco colonists. The dominant partner of the Alliance was the Mexica kingdom, based in Tenochtitlan, an island city in the south central part of Lake Texcoco. The junior partner was Tlacopan, a city on the central eastern shore of the Lake.

A note about terminology: The word "Aztec" does not appear until at least colonial times. Some believe it was an invention of Alexander Humboldt, a 19th century European explorer. It is unlikely that the participants of the Triple Alliance would have used it. In this series, I use "Aztec Empire" to describe the Triple Alliance as a whole. I also use "Aztec" as a catchall term for aspects of culture common among the Alliance, rather than the way it is often used, as a name for the Mexica, the tribe with which it is usually associated.


Interior of the Salon of Nobles. Two rows of pillars supported the roof. Between them, toward the back, is a large square fire pit. It probably served ceremonial purposes, because one fire could not have provided enough light or heat for such a large room. Low stone benches run along the north and south sides, as well as the back wall. The structure in the center of the back wall appears to occupy a position of  importance.


The podium. This is clearly the most important spot in the Salon of Nobles. There is a direct line-of-sight from the entrance, down a passage created by the row of pillars. The large fire pit in the central area stands closer to this structure than to any of the other seating areas. This structure probably served as a seat for the ruler, or podium on which he could stand to address the room. It is also likely that the most important of the priests and warriors sat on the benches to his right and left.


Seating bench along the south wall of the Salon of Nobles. The fire pits spaced along the bench provided light, as well as heat. Similar pits appear along the north wall's bench. Among the artifacts found in these hearths were incense, feathers, and rubber balls. Those gathered here probably discussed problems in managing the city and in handling the trade that passed through it. Other issues most likely concerned upcoming festivals and ceremonies, support for Triple Alliance military campaigns and, of course, how to satisfy Texcoco's tribute requirements.


A meeting in the Salon probably looked something like this. The example above comes from one of the surviving codices created by Aztec scribes. It shows a meeting between Mexica ruler Moctezuma II and his nobles. Meetings in Zultépec's Salon would have borne some similarities to this image. Everyone would have been seated on reed mats. The meeting participants would have faced the ruler, who would sit at the head of the room, in a place of honor like the Salon's podium. The participants would have been attired cotton tilmas, colorfully decorated with the embroidered borders allowed only to the elite. In the codex image above, the small bubbles in front of the ruler's mouth indicate speech. In Nahuatl, the word for a ruler is tlatoani, meaning "one who speaks".

This completes Part 3 of my Zultépec-Tecoaque series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim














Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Zultépec-Tecoaque Part 2: The main plaza and its temples

The Temple of Ehecatl, God of the Wind, overlooks the Plaza Prinicpal. In Part 1 of this series, I showed you some of the fascinating artifacts recovered from the period when this site was a Teotihuacan trading outpost (300 AD-650 AD). All of the structures you will see in Part 2 were built by native people called the Acolhua. They re-populated the ruins of the Teotihuacán town around 1250 AD, after it had been abandoned for 600 years. In this and succeeding postings, I'll walk you through Acolhua era ruins, beginning with a tour of the Plaza Principal. The Plaza is bordered on the west by the Temple of Ehecatl and on the south by the Temple of Tezcatlipoca. These were two of the most important gods during the Post-Classic Era (900 AD-1521 AD).

I should also comment on the town's two names. Both Zultépec and Tecoaque are Nahuatl, the language of the AcolhuaThey, along with the Méxica (Aztecs) and the Tlaxcalteca, were part of the great Chichimec invasion which followed the collapse of the Toltec EmpireZultépec, which means "Hill of the Quails", was the name the Acolhua chose for their city. Tecoaque means "Place where they ate the lords or the gods". It was only after the Acolhua town was destroyed by the Spanish that its ruins were given that name. For the sake of simplicity, from here on I will just use the name Zultépec,


Site map of Zultépec-Tecoaque. The map is oriented with north at the top. Just right of center is the large circular structure called the Temple of Ehecatl. To the east of the temple, in the middle of the Plaza, is a small square structure known as the Tzompantli. There are also two small altars to the north and east of the Tzompantli. South of the Tzompantli is a large, square structure with a small, circular enclosure attached to its south side. That is the Temple of Tezcatlipoca. There are also two other plazas which we will look at in future postings. South of the Plaza Principal is the Plaza Superior Sur, which contains temples to Tlaloc, the Rain God, and Mictlantecuhtli, the God of Death. To the north of the Plaza Principal is the Plaza Inferior Norte, containing the Temple of Xiuhtecuhtli, the Fire God, and the elite council-house known as the Salón de los Nobles. Finally, in the map's northwest quadrant are two large residential complexes where most of the population once lived.

Temple of Ehecatl, the God of the Wind

Temple of Ehecatl, viewed from the left, or southeast side. The temple is circular with four concentric levels. The flat top once contained another circular structure with a thatched, conical roof. In front of the circular structure is a broad, rectangular porch containing the stumps of pillars that once supported a roof. The temples to Mesoamerica's numerous other gods are square or rectangular. Because the wind can come from any direction, Ehecatl's temples are always circular. Other examples of this can be seen at pre-hispanic sites such as Calixtlahuaca and  Xochitécatl.


How the Wind God's temple once appeared. The temple faces east, the direction from which both the sun and the star Venus rise. The position of the temple in the west end of the plaza also symbolizes the setting of these astronomical bodies. They are both extremely important in pre-hispanic cosmology because the cyclical nature of their disappearances and reappearances represent renewal, regeneration, and fertility.


Small stone statues of Ehecatl and his temple, found at Zultépec. The Wind God is usually portrayed wearing a mask resembling a bird's beak, through which he blew the wind that cleared the way for rain. This wind also symbolized human breath which, along with blood, was one of the two essences of life. The God of Wind was associated with several other gods, most importantly with Quetzalcoatl, the famed Plumed Serpent. The relationship was so close that he is often called Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl. The Wind God played a key role in the creation of the 5th World (our current universe), when the sun refused to move. Ehecatl stepped in and blew strongly to set the sun on its course. Because the rain is preceded by, and moves with, the wind, the God of the Wind was also partnered with Tlaloc, the Rain God. Finally, as Ehuecatl-Quetzalcoatl, he was the lover of Mayahuel, the Goddess of Maguey.


Almena recovered when the Temple of Ehecatl was excavated. Almenas are decorative elements placed in a line along the cornices of pre-hispanic buildings. They were usually covered in stucco and painted in bright colors.


Skeleton and maguey-shaped pulque cups recovered at Ehecatl's Temple. There was no sign in the museum indicating whether the person had been sacrificed, but the large, splintered hole in the side of the skull suggests a fatal blow. Mayahuel was a beautiful goddess who was hidden away in the clouds by her jealous grandmother, Tzitzímitl. Eventually, Mayahuel became very lonely and began to sing. Her alluring song attracted Ehecatl-Quezalcoatl, who helped her to escape. They made love in the sky and, in their passion, they fell to earth and became a maguey plant. Tzitzímitl discovered the plant when, angered by her granddaughter's escape, she followed the lovers. In her rage, she hacked the maguey to pieces, missing only one part, which Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl protected. His tears over the death of Mayahuel caused the maguey fragment to grow. The magnificent plant was found by the Acolhua people during their great migration from the north and it provided them with many useful products. The spines on the ends of its leaves became needles; the fibers were used for rope and sandals; and much of the plant was edible. Most importantly, they found that they could make pulque, an alcoholic drink, from the juice of the plant. Pulque was declared sacred and came to be used in many important ceremonies.

Temple of Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror God

The Temple of Tezcatlipoca shares the Plaza Principal with Ehecatl's Temple. It is situated on the south side of the Plaza and faces north, a direction with which Tezcatlipoca was closely associated. The proximity of his temple with that of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl is also significant. The relationship between the two gods is complex. In some creation myths, they are portrayed as great rivals, who each destroy one of the worlds created by the other. All of these worlds pre-date the creation of the 5th World, in which we currently live. However, in one of the many creation stories, the two gods cooperate to capture the Earth Monster, a giant crocodile who bites off Tezcatlipoca's foot in the struggle. The two gods use the body of the Earth Monster to create land, where before there was only sea. Because his foot ended up in the Earth Monster's stomach, Tezcatlipoca is usually portrayed with an obsidian mirror in place of the missing appendage. Often, smoke emanates from this mirror, giving him the name by which he is often known: "Smoking Mirror".


Tezcatlipoca, in full regalia, including his obsidian-mirror foot. Here, he actually wears several such mirrors. One is on his right foot and another, larger version, is suspended from his neck. A third is part of his head dress. His body is covered in black and his face is painted with two black stripes. The various mirrors that he wears are made from black obsidian. This color scheme refers to Tezcatlipoca's association with night and darkness. His totem animal is the jaguar, a powerful night hunter believed to be capable of moving freely between the world of the living and the dark underworld of the dead. Jaguars were also totems of royalty, power, and warfare, thus making Smoking Mirror a favorite of rulers. Thus those who worshipped Tezcatlipoca, by extension, worshipped their rulers.


How Tezcatlipoca's temple once appeared. The temple has a broad, 4-step staircase in front, leading up to a patio. On either side of the staircase is a balustrade with a sloping surface leading up to a vertical, rectangular surface. This architectural style is called talud y tablero and dates back at least to Teotihuacán, if not earlier. At the patio's far (south) end is a fire pit, which is situated directly in front of the narrow entrance to a circular stone room. The circular room was once topped by a thatched, conical roof. This was the inner sanctum, restricted to the priests of Tezcatlipoca.


The fire pit and the entrance to the circular inner sanctum. Like most of the important pre-hispanic gods, Tezcatlipoca was connected to the cycle of regeneration and fertility. As such, he was sometimes referred to as the "Giver of Life". Toxcatl, a ceremony held during the month of May, was the most important festival devoted to Smoking Mirror. During the previous May's ceremony, a handsome young man would be selected to impersonate Tezcatlipoca for the coming year. Usually, but not always, this was a captured enemy warrior. Over the following 12 months, he appeared as the god, dressed in finery and jade jewelry. People meeting him in the streets would worship him as if he really were Tezcatlipoca.


The inner sanctum contains two fire pits. During the last 20 days before the climax of the Toxcatl ceremony, the young "god" would be wed to four beautiful young girls who were themselves treated as goddesses. These last three weeks were filled with feasting, singing, and dancing. On the last day, the young man would climb the stairs of Tezcatlipoca's temple, to be greeted by the priests who led him into the inner sanctum.


Toxcatl sacrifice. In the inner sanctum, the young man would be seized and his beating heart carved out of his chest. After the sacrifice, the victim's body would be cooked and ritually consumed. Did he know what would happen to him at the end? Absolutely! The whole affair was considered by all, including the sacrifice victim, to be a great honor. I have not been able to determine the fate of the four young brides, but it is likely that they too were sacrificed.


The inner sanctum, seen from the rear, with Ehecatl's temple in the distance. The timing of the Toxcatl ceremony was significant. May is the end of dry season, and is followed by the seasonal rains which nourish the crops. The Toxcatl ceremony was therefore a celebration of the cycle of regeneration, upon which Mesoamerican civilization depended. The whole affair was intended to encourage Tezcatlipoca to fulfill his role as the "Giver of Life."


The Tzompantli and Other Plaza Features

The base of the Tzompantli is located in the middle of the Plaza. The Temple of Ehecatl stands in the background. If you were to draw a line from the center of Ehecatl's Temple toward the east, and another from the Temple of Tezcatlipoca toward the north, the point at which they would meet is this platform. Tzompantlis date back to the Toltecs (900 AD-1150 AD). They were a highly militarized civilization that dominated most of Mesoamerica, until they too declined and fell. The end of the Toltec Empire opened the way for invasion by the Acolhua and other fierce Chichimec tribes. These newcomers viewed the remains of the Toltec civilization with awe. They readily adopted key aspects of the its culture, including militarism and public displays of the results of human sacrifice.


Tzompantlis were racks used to publicly display the skulls of sacrifice victims. The skull racks had both religious and political purposes. Pre-hispanic people believed that many of their gods required human sacrifice and tzompantlis played a role in these rituals. However, they were also intended to overawe anyone--whether inhabitant or foreigner--who might consider challenging the ruling elite. The heads displayed were usually those of captured warriors, but not always. Sometimes they included women and even children, as was the case with some of the skulls at Zultépec.


This skull was at one time mounted on a tzompantli. Notice the large hole in the skull's left temple, through which the pole extended. During the Post-Classic Era, the use of tzompantlis became widespread in Mesoamerica. The Méxica (Aztecs) arrived in Central Mexico about the same time as the Acolhua, and later became their close allies. In their capital of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), the Méxica constructed an immense tzompantli platform and decorated it with carved stone skulls. Recently, archeologists digging around Tenochtitlán's Templo Mayor  uncovered a huge "skull tower" made up of more than 650 actual human skulls mortared together in circles. Another tzompantli can be found at Chichen Itza, a great Maya city in Yucatan with a strong but mysterious connection with the Toltecs.


View of Plaza Principal from atop the Temple of Ehecatl. In the foreground, you can see the stumps of some of the columns that supported the terrace in front of the temple. The tzompantli is in the center of the photo, with two altars to the north and east of it.


View of the Plaza Principal and the altar near its east end. Beyond the altar is the Plaza Inferior Norte with its Temple to the Fire God and Salon of the Nobles. We will visit this plaza and the one to the south of the Plaza Principal in my next posting.

This completes Part 2 of my Zultépec-Tecoaque series. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim