Monday, December 19, 2011

Puebla Part 15: Cacaxtla's Venus Temple and the Battle Murals

The Bird Priest in Cacaxtla's North Platform. This is a detail of one of Cacaxtla's most striking murals. Standing on either side of a doorway are two figures who may be priests or rulers. One is dressed as a bird, the other as a jaguar. The juxtaposition of birds and jaguars is also found in the great battle murals which line the central plaza of the city. In the mural above, a tall figure wears a head dress in the shape of a bird's beak and flowing wings attached to his shoulders and upper arms. He is richly dressed, and carries in his arms a large shaft whose lower end is a gaping snake's mouth. These are the oldest mural paintings in Mesoamerica featuring human figures who share features from a variety of cultures, including Maya, Totonac, and that of Teotihuacan. They were created by the Olmeca-Xicalancas who inhabited Cacaxtla between 600 AD and 900 AD. This was during the period of Cacaxtla's greatest power. The Bird Priest seen above represents Quetzacoatl, the creator god who taught humans about the arts and agriculture. For the historical background of Cacaxtla and its even older sister city of Xochitécatl, please scroll down to the previous two postings.

The Venus Temple

The Venus Temple contains two dancers, a male and a female. The Venus Temple is found on the west side of the Gran Basamente, the great platform on which Cacaxtla rests. A male and a female dancer can be seen on two parallel supporting structures.

The male dancer is the least damaged of the two. He is naked from the waist up, but wears short pants of jaguar skin, and a kind of flaring skirt over those. The belt holding up his skirt has buckle that is a symbol for Venus, hence the name of the temple. On his ankles he wears dancing rattles. Notice also that he has a scorpion tail which extends behind him between his legs and off to the right side of the column. There is a wicked-looking stinger at the end.

Urn found at Cacaxtla with the figure of a dancer on the side. Notice the similarities between the figure on the urn and the painted dancer.  He wears a similar skirt and rattle anklets and his head dress bears some similarity to the painting. I thought this was a particularly fine piece of pottery

The female dancer also wears a jaguar skin underskirt. Unfortunately, this painting is more damaged than that of the male. Similar to the male figure, she also has an overskirt held up by the Venus symbol. The reference to Venus indicates an astronomical phenomenon or a calendrical date associated with Venus. To the people of this culture, Venus represented warfare and sacrifice.

The Battle Mural

The Battle Mural runs along the north side of the central plaza. It can be seen just under the row of broken pillars in the background. The two halves are separated by a broad staircase in the middle leading up to the North Platform and the temples and ritual rooms it contains. The Battle Mural stretches about 22 meters (72 ft.) along the central plaza's north side. It contains extraordinary scenes of bloody combat and human sacrifice.

Skull found at Cacaxtla. There was no sign indicating whether this was from a sacrifice or a simple burial. There appears to have been plenty of both at Cacaxtla. The city grew up in the wake of the fall of Teotihucan. That great empire had stabilized Mesoamerica for 500 years, and its sudden collapse around 600 AD left a great vacuum of power and authority. Into that vacuum rushed a host of small cities, vying for control of the resources of their areas. Cacaxtla had the good fortune to occupy a key strategic position on the trade crossroads between the Gulf Coast and the inland civilizations, as well as the route leading from the Zapotec civilization around Oaxaca up to the northern high plains. Such a position naturally created conflict with its envious neighbors. Warfare during this period was fierce.

The Battle Mural panels located to the right of the central staircase. The mural dates from the period prior to 700 AD, in the century immediately following Teotihuacan's fall when regional conflicts were at their height. These and other murals were discovered in the 1990s by local looters looking for pots and other objects to sell. Word quickly got out about a major discovery. Because they were buried, the vivid colors of the murals survived for 1100 years after Cacaxtla was abandoned. The Mexican archaeological authorities have left them in place, but otherwise have taken great care that they should not be damaged by weather or vandalism.

Jaguar Warrior spears an Eagle Warrior. The Jaguar Warrior is in the center of the photo above. He carries a round Maya-blue shield and is thrusting his spear point into the chest of an Eagle warrior who is lying down, leaning on his elbows. Military cults associated with Jaguars and Eagles appear in several Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Toltec Empire based in Tollan (Tula), and the Itzá rulers of Chichen Itzá.  These cults reached their peak in the Aztec Empire where they were the elite units who led the fight against Hernán Cortéz.

The dirty work got done with obsidian weapons like these. On the left is a spear point, while the blade on the right may have been part of a long knife or thrusting weapon. Obsidian is volcanic glass, a substance that can be shaped into very sharp tools or weapons. The cutting edge on some obsidian weapons has been found to be many times sharper than modern steel surgical instruments.

Another Jaguar Warrior raises his spear for a deadly thrust. The meaning of the Battle Mural is in dispute among archaeologists. Some see it as a genuine battle, with the Jaguar Warriors apparently emerging victorious. Others believe that the scenes represent a mass human sacrifice, possibly of captives from a battle. The evidence offered for this is that many of the Eagle Warriors appear to be unarmed and are dismembered. What appears to be the head of an Eagle Warrior lies just in front of the left foot of the Jaguar Warrior shown above. I don't have an opinion in this dispute. What seems clear to me is that the Jaguar Warriors represent a victorious and triumphant Cacaxtla. The Battle Mural may portray an actual battle, and ancient cities didn't tend to celebrate their great defeats.

A snarling stucco figure may portray an ancient warrior-ruler. The museum at Cacaxtla contains a number of figures dressed in fantastically complicated garb, like the one shown above.

The Bird and Jaguar Priests

The Bird Priest. This is the full panel containing the Bird Priest, seen in close detail in my first photo of this posting. In addition to the priest and the feathered snake upon which he stands, there are many interesting details to this mural. I wondered about the purpose of implement he holds in his arms, but the sign at the site held no explanation. The border of the panel surrounding the priest contains many further details.

Detail of the Bird Priest mural. Here you an see the serpent, with green/blue feathers along his back. This is a clearly a reference to Quezalcoatl, the famous "feathered serpent", a deity whose origin goes back at least as far as the earliest period of Teotihuacan, around 100 BC. The "business end" of the device held in the priest's arms is the head of another snake, which seems about to devour the head of the feathered serpent. Note also the feet of the priest, represented as the talons of a bird. My interpretation of this scene is that the priest is using the device to intimidate the snake on which he stands, or perhaps as a tool to direct it. This may be intended to emphasize the ability of the priest to make the god do what he wants. Of course, this is only my speculation. I invite anyone who has information about the meaning of this image to leave a comment. Notice the plants and animals along the border below the feathered serpent. There are at least 27 different plants and animals represented in this and the other murals around Cacaxtla.

The Jaguar Priest is both similar and different from the Bird Priest. To the left of the doorway leading to the inner sanctum, facing the Bird Priest, stands the Jaguar Priest. Their postures are similar, and they both carry large shaft devices with which they appear to be directing or influencing the creatures on which they stand. In the mural above, the Jaguar Priest stands upon an elongated jaguar. Jaguars were viewed as powerful symbols throughout Mesoamerica all the way back to the Olmecs. Interestingly, drops of water appear to be cascading from the device down onto the head of the jaguar. Water was a very important element in prehispanic life and, as such, carried very powerful symbolic meanings. Like the Bird Priest, the Jaguar Priest has the feet of an animal, in this case the claws of a jaguar.

Bust of a ruler/priest found at Cacaxtla. The figure, which appears to be speaking, or even shouting, wears an elaborately feathered head dress and a large necklace of some sort.

Hutches to raise animals, but what kinds? Again, there seems to be a dispute among archaeologists about these small stone enclosures. One source holds that they were for raising parrots, whose brightly colored feathers were valuable throughout the ancient world. Another asserts that these are rabbit hutches used to raise food for the noble elite who lived in the Cacaxtla complex. I suppose it is also possible that their use could have changed from one to the other over time.

A figure with the face of a tipsy clown. Although this fellow wears the garb of an important figure, his face is anything but solemn with authority.

Xochitécatl's Pyramid of the Flowers, seen from Cacaxtla's North Platform. This ancient pyramid was built, according to some, as early as 700 BC. It is part of a separate complex that is much older than Cacaxtla. If you missed my Xochitécatl posting, it is Part 13 of this series and you can just scroll down. This photo gives you a sense of the close proximity of the two sites, and of the woods and small fields that surround both. From each site, one has a vast, 360 degree vista of the surrounding valley and volcanos in the distance.

This completes Part 15 of my series on Puebla and is the end of the series itself. My next posting will be entirely different: a whimsical, photo-walk around Ajijic, the Mexican village where I live. I think you'll enjoy the change. If you have any comments on this or any of my other postings, please leave it in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

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If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim