Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mexico City Part 6: Aztec Cosmology (Continued)

Centeotl, the God of Maiz, brandishes a couple of corn cobs. He wears an elaborate head dress, large ear spools, and suspended from his neck is an elegant pectoral, characteristic of this god. Centeotl means "god of the dried maiz still on the cob." Maiz was the single most important crop in all of Mesoamerica, and is still very important to modern Mexico. According to the Florentine Codex, Centeotl was the son Tlazolteotl, the goddess of sin, vice, sexual misdeeds, and adulterers. In another example of Aztec (Mexica) cosmic duality, she was also the goddess who could forgive you for these sins through purification and steam baths.  Centeotl's father was Piltzintecuhtli, the god of the planet Mercury, a celestial deity who was considered to be an aspect of Tonatiuh, the God of the 5th Sun.

In Part 5 of this series, we looked at some of the "creator gods", like Tonatiuh. In this sequel, we'll be looking at some other gods who were also very important because of their influence over crucial matters of day-to-day Mexica life. Certainly the God of Maiz fits this bill. Centeotl is usually portrayed as the young man seen above, and he was often painted the yellow color of maiz. Previous to the arrival of the male-dominated Mexica warrior culture, the goddess Chicomecoatl was considered the patroness of maiz. When the Mexica rose to power, so did Centeotl, (or Cinteotl, as he is sometimes called). He became the senior partner of this pair of maiz deities, although Chicomecoatl still figured prominently in the rites related to maiz at the level of local farmers.


Chicometeotl, the traditional Goddess of Maiz. Her name means "Seven Serpent." The maiz goddess wears an elaborate head dress which in real life would have been made from a frame of sticks covered with amacalli paper, from the bark of the amate tree. She was the goddess not only of maiz, but of agriculture and fertility in general. However, neither Centeotl nor Chicomecoatl created maiz. That was done by Quetzalcoatl, one of the four sons of Ometeotl, the original God of Duality through whom everything else was created, including all the lower level gods. According to one story, Quetzalcoatl didn't actually create maiz, but stole a kernel from some ants, and delivered it as a gift to humans. Chicomecoatl was the deity who ensured that the kernels turned into thriving plants. She was known as "Princess of the Unripe Maiz," in contrast with Centeotl, who represented the harvested maiz. The two were therefore considered to be the two parts of the duality of corn.

Chicomecoatl was thought to be a beautiful young goddess, just as the young maiz plants were considered beautiful. When the plants began to sprout, the Mexica held special celebrations where young women let down their hair and danced bare-breasted through the fields. They each picked five ears of corn, wrapped them up as if they were infants, and danced them back from the fields in a great procession full of music. As part of the festivities, people would douse each other with flower pollen or scented maiz flour. Here in Ajijic, where I live, there is an annual Spring parade where people shower each other with handfuls of flour, just as the Mexica did 500 years ago. There was a darker side to the maiz celebrations, however. After each September harvest, a young girl dressed as Chicomecoatl was sacrificed by decapitation and her blood was collected so that it could be poured over a statue of the goddess. The priests then flayed her corpse and wore the skin. Since Centeotl represented the harvested corn, this bloody ritual of sacrificing "Chicomecoatl" may have been introduced by the Mexica when they usurped the position of the maiz goddess with their own male god.


Xipe Totec, the Flayed God, wore the skin of those sacrificed. The god Xipe Totec was known as "Our Lord the Flayed One." The head above shows a skin stretched tightly over the head of another person. Inside the mouth of the flayed head you can see the lips of the person wearing it. The Flayed God, and the flaying ritual itself, represented the cycle of life, death, and rebirth that was essential to the agricultural process. Like the concept of duality, the concept of a cyclical world was a central element to Mexica cosmology. The living person (life) was sacrificed (death). The flayed skin was then worn for 20 days by a priest who emerged from the rotting flesh (rebirth) just as new growth emerges from rotting vegetation. While all this seems rather horrifying and repugnant to modern sensibilities, it was very important to the Mexica's cyclical view of the world.

In Mexica mythology, Xipe Totec flayed himself in order to provide food to humans. This was related to the process by which maiz seeds shed their outer layer in preparation for germination. Xipe Totec was one of the four original sons of Ometeotl called the Four Tezcatlipoca. His symbolic color was red and he was associated with the East. In line with Mexica duality, Xipe Totec not only brought rebirth, and therefore new crops and the renewal of everything, but his malevolent side afflicted humans with rashes, abscessess, and other diseases of the skin and eyes. The sacrificed victims' skins were sometimes mounted on statues of Our Lord the Flayed One and it was believed they could cure these diseases. Mothers sometimes brought sick children so they could touch the skins and be healed.


Xiuhtecuhtli was the Lord of Fire and Volcanoes. Like water and maiz, fire was essential to life. It gave heat, lighted up the darkness, and enabled cooking and the transformation of various materials into useful objects. That was the beneficial side of the duality. Its opposite was the destruction caused by uncontrolled fire. Active volcanoes, with which Mexico is well supplied, represented the ultimate and terrifying power of fire for everyone in Mesoamerica. Xiutecuhtli, who is often identified with Huehueteotl ("The Old, Old God"), is always shown in a seated position, as seen above. He usually wears headgear that projects like wings from either side of his head. His name means God of Turquoise (xiuhuitl) and he was believed to live in a turquoise room at the earth's center. The green-painted decorations on the lower legs of the figure above probably represent turquoise jewelry. Xiutecuhtli was the patron of Mexica emperors and of the pochteca (wealthy traveling merchants). As Huehueteotl, he is generally shown as an old man, also sitting, but wearing a dish-shaped brazier on top of his head which was used to burn incense and for ritual fires. The Old, Old God was called that for a very good reason. The earliest humans considered the control of fire to be crucially important so it should not surprising that they attached god-like qualities to it.

Because of Xiutecuhtli-Huehueteotl's great antiquity, and his capacity to bring light out of darkness, he is sometimes related to Ometeotl, the original "uncreated" god who emerged from the void. Worship of the Lord of Fire and Volcanoes goes back at least to the Pre-Classic city of Cuicuilco (700 BC-150 AD) where statues of him have been found. Interestingly, Cuicuilco was destroyed by a nearby volcano. At Teotihuacan (100 AD-650 AD) Huehueteotl was one of the most widely represented deities. He was also worshiped by the Toltecs and that, of course, made him especially popular with the Mexica. However, it is probable that they already venerated some version of the Fire God when they encountered the ruins of the Toltecs during their great migration. Two important Mexica festivals were devoted to Xiutecuhtli.  Xocoti Huetzi was a ritual connected to harvest and the dying of plants. An image of the god was placed in a tree and young men competed in climbing to the top to retrieve it and get a prize. This is actually quite similar to the greased pole climbs held at Ajijic fiestas, except that the Mexica finale of sacrificing humans in a great bonfire has been deleted. The festival of Izcalli celebrated the beginning of the new year, regrowth, and regeneration. All fires were extinguished except for one in front of the image of Xiutecuhtli. A turquoise mask was placed there and people brought offerings such as birds, lizards, and snakes that they cooked and ate. At four-year intervals, the Mexica would include the sacrifice of four slaves or captives, each dressed as the Fire God, and each wearing a color representing one of the four cardinal directions. All the people would bring torches to light in the sacrficial bonfire so they could go home and relight their hearth fires


Xochipilli was the god of good times. His name means "Flower Prince" and his nahual (animal spirit) is the monkey. The god of art, games, beauty, dance, and flowers, Xochipilli was also the patron of writing and painting, as well as of homosexuals and male prostitutes. These last two attributes apparently originated with the Toltecs, and thus were adopted by the Mexica. Fertility and agricultural produce also fell within his purview, connecting him with the rain god Tlaloc, and the maiz god Centeotl. His twin sister was Xochiquetzal, the goddess of flowers, fertility, beauty, female sexual power and prostitution. She was also the patron of feather workers and other makers of luxury goods. In the statue above, Xochipilli gazes up to the heavens with his hands raised, but wears an oddly sour expression. His throne and body are covered with designs of flowers, butterflies, and hallucinogenic mushrooms. If there had been Mexica hippies, this would have been their perfect patron god.


Huehuecoyotl, the Old Coyote, was another good time guy.  Huehuecoyotl's areas of interest were music, dance, song, and mischief. He is often depicted dancing while accompanied by a human companion playing a drum. Not suprisingly, the Old Coyote god is associated with choral singing, since coyotes often gather together to howl in the wilderness. Coyotes were associated with astuteness, world-wisdom, pragmatism, male beauty, and youthfulness. Attaching hue hue (very old) to the name had positive implications to the Mexica, because they associated age with philosophical insights and a godly connection. Throughout Mesoamerica, and even among North American indigenous people, coyotes were viewed as shape-shifters. To the Mexica, this connected Huehuecoyotl to Tezcaltlipoca, one of the four creator gods who had this capacity. The Old Coyote had both female and male lovers and Xochipilli was one of the male ones. Due to his canine nature, he was friends with Xolotl, the dog-faced god who guided souls through the underworld. In fact, he appears to have been poor Xolotl's only friend. Huehuecoyotl liked fun and games but, in line with the typical Mexia duality, he had another side, that of trickster. However, his tricks appear to have been relatively benign, and often backfired on him, getting him into all sorts of unintended difficulties. Perhaps he is related to Wile E. Coyote of "Roadrunner" fame. The statue above is one of the finest examples of Mexica animal art.


Offerings and sacrifices to the gods

Xiutecuhtli appears on the side of a device for ritual burning. Above, the face of Xiutecuhtli decorates the side of a container called a tlexictli. Small pieces of some ancient burnt offering still cling to the inside lip of the container. Devices for ritual burning generally came in two types. One was larger, stationary, and usually shaped like an hour glass as seen above. The narrow part of the container represented the center of the universe, i.e. the turquoise room where Xiutecuhtli lived. Extending out on either side of the tlexictli is a knotted bow. Such bows are often shown in Mexica art tied around people, animals or gods, but their meaning is not yet understood. Tlexictli were used primarily to dispose of small ritual objects or materials used in a ceremony. This allowed the objects to leave the physical world and enter the spiritual one.

The other kind of burning device, called a popochcomitl, was shaped like a ladle on the end of a long handle. These were carried by priests in processions and also used to purify people by waving the device around them so they would be enveloped by the smoke. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a young Spanish officer who accompanied Hernán Cortés on the Conquest, described how Cortés and other Spaniards were often "fumigated" by priests at the entrance of cities they visited.


A god's statue made of copal incense is decorated with shells. Copal is a tree resin that is used to produce smoke with a quite pleasing smell. The ancient people of Mesoamerica used it widely for ritual purposes and it is still widely used today in sweat lodge ceremonies. The name comes from the Nahuatl word copalli, which means "with the help of this path" or "thanks to this path". Figures made of copal were associated with fertility and water. The shells attached to the figure may well apply to water. In Mexica rituals, the self-sacrificed blood of a priest might be added to the copal in hopes of producing a religious vision.


A varied collection of offerings to the Rain God includes statues of the Fire God. Above, you can see the wide variety of items that were found at the Templo Mayor where the temple to Tlaloc was located. There are two tlexictli quite similar to the one previously seen. Between them is a statue of Xiutecuhtli in his typical seated posture. There are many water-related offerings, including coral, shells, and several conches, as well as the sword-bill of the large ocean-going sawfish seen at the far right. Conch shells were often used as trumpets for musical, military, or ritual purposes. To bring rain, a conch shell would be blown to the four cardinal directions in order to summon Tlaloc. The presence in Tlaloc's temple of the tlexictli and the seated statue of Xiutecuhtli, testifies to the interesting connection between the gods of fire and water. They were two of the most ancient of all Mesoamerican gods, representing two of the four fundamental facets of nature (the other two being earth and air). Fire and water were yet another duality, with fire being masculine, hot, diaphanous, and celestial, while water was feminine, cold, dark, and terrestrial. As part of the ritual after ceremonial objects were burned in a tlexictli, the remaining ashes were often buried next to a stream or other body of water.


The skulls of sacrificed children are displayed with sacrificial blades and other objects. These offerings were found in Tlatelolco, formerly a separate Mexica city adjacent to Tenochtitlán but now part of the Mexico City metropolis. Tlatelolco was a huge market town with as many as 25,000 customers per day, according to Bernal Diaz del Castillo. Among the items offered were child slaves, sometimes purchased for the purpose of sacrifice. Between 1454-57 AD, a great drought brought about a mass sacrifice of 37 children and 6 adults at Tlatelolco. The skulls above may have been part of that group. The deformations in their skulls indicate they are from the Gulf Coast where children's skulls were deliberately deformed as a beauty feature. The city of Tlatelolco was established by a group of Mexica who, in the very early days, broke away from those who founded Tenochtitlán. The Tlatelolcans became great merchants and eventually the Mexica of Tenochtitlán cast covetous eyes on the trade and conquered their neighbors.



Human thigh bones were used for various ritual purposes. Notice the delicate incisions on the upper part of the bone. The images carved there include skulls, animals, and flowers. Sometimes a bone like this would be notched from one end to the other to make a rasping musical instrument. Other bones were used by priests of Xipe Totec to ritually touch ceremony participants as a fertility blessing. Capturing an enemy soldier was one of the highest acts a warrior could perform, superior even to killing the enemy. Having captured an enemy who was then sacrificed, the successful warrior could claim a thigh bone from the corpse. He would hang the bone on the wall outside the door of his house to show his accomplishment.


An inhabitant of Mictlan, the ninth and lowest level of the underworld. The Mexica saw the inhabitants of Mictlan as skeletons with bulging eyes and sacrificial knives protruding from their mouths and nose cavities. The skull rests on the nose projection of a sawfish.

This completes Part 6 of my Mexico City series. On the happy note above, I will take a break from the Mexicas and next week turn to the more cheerful subject of an indigenous fair and dance in Ajijic put on by a group of Puréchepa people who recently visited our community. I hope you have enjoyed my series on the Mexica. In the future, I will resume the Mexico City series, covering its wonderful architecture, museums, and street scenes. If you would like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim



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