Friday, November 9, 2012

Mexico City Part 3: The Aztec House of Eagles, Tzompantli, and Red Altar

This magnificent stone eagle can be found in the Templo Mayor museum. Unearthed in 1985, the sculpture is large, about 1.22 m (4 ft) long and 1 m (3 ft) high at the beak. The piece is called a cuauhxicalli, a Nahuatl word meaning "eagle's drinking gourd." A large bowl set in the eagle's back once received sacrificial human hearts and blood. The fine feathers radiating from around the eagle's eye represent sunbeams and indicate a connection with the sun and therefore with the most important Mexica (Aztec) deity, Huitzilopochitli. Probably carved around 1502 AD, the cuauhxicalli is one of numerous sculptures that glorify eagles. Many of these have been found in or around ruins that archaeologists call the House of Eagles, located in an area known as the North Patio next to the massive Templo Mayor. For a look at the Templo Mayor and the Mexica capital city of Tenochtitlán, see the previous posting.  (Photo taken at Templo Mayor museum)

The House of Eagles

The House of Eagles is protected from the elements by a large metal awning. In the foreground you can see the various levels of the North Patio that were built up over the centuries as Lake Texcoco periodically flooded the ancient island city. Also known as the Palace of Eagle Warriors, the House of Eagles was destroyed during the Spanish assault on Tenochtitlán, which may also have caused the damage you can see on the eagle in the previous photo. The Eagle House was one of the most important structures in the Sacred Precinct of the city. This was where the Mexica elite, which included the Eagle Warriors, conducted ceremonies, meditated, prayed, and rendered offerings. It was a large complex, spread out over a broad platform with columns, meeting rooms, and patios. The initial House of Eagles was built in 1430 AD and then was enlarged in 1470 by the Emperor Axayócatl. The third and final structure was finished in 1500. After the Spanish conquered Tenochtitlán in 1521, they built the Church of Santiago Apóstol on top of the ruins of the Eagle House. Since this had been one of the key centers of power in the Mexica Empire, the Spanish wanted to obliterate any memory it. They were successful until the 1980s when it was rediscovered during the excavation of the Templo Mayor area. (Photo taken at the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

Wearing an eagle-beak helmet, a stern-faced warrior scowls fiercely across the centuries. If the Mexica were the Nazis of their era, given their industrial-scale human sacrifice program, the Eagle Warriors were their SS troopers. They were the elite of the elite, totally dedicated to warfare and enamored of the symbols of death. Male children of noble families were given high levels of education, including extensive military training. Many of these young men aspired to become Eagle Warriors, a status they could only gain by capturing a large number of enemy warriors in two successive military engagements. Capturing enemies was considered much more glorious than killing them, because they could then be used to feed gods that were ever-hungry for human blood. (Photo taken at the National Museum of Anthropology)

Eagle heads bracket the broad staircase leading up to the main platform. The L-shaped platform was discovered in 1981. Inside the platform is an older substructure built in 1469 AD. Only part of the House of Eagles has been fully excavated because the rest lies under an adjacent street. Tunnels have been built into that section, revealing rooms with wall murals and long benches with carved friezes of warriors. (Photo taken at the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

Life-sized statues of Mictlantecuhtli, the God of Death, once flanked interior doorways. This clay and stucco figure, created approximately 1480 AD, represents the God of Death who was the Lord of the Underworld called Mictlan. It was a cold, damp place somewhere in the north that was the lowest part of the universe. Mictlantecuhtlithe Lord of Mictlan, was the most important of the several gods and goddesses of death the Mexica worshipped. This statue and a similar one were found when the ruins of the House of Eagles were excavated. I have seen a number of different sculptures of Mictlantecuhtli at various museums, and he is nearly always shown in a similar posture, with a skull-like face and hands raised like claws. This statue shows the God of Death with half of his flesh stripped away, as if from a rotting corpse or one that has been flayed, leaving his skull and ribcage exposed.  Below his ribcage, his liver hangs down. The liver was thought by the Mexica to be the home of the spirit, a belief shared by prehispanic people back to very ancient times. While modern people might view such a sculpture with horror or revulsion, the Mexica saw such skeletal figures as symbols of fertility, health, and abundance. They believed that death and rebirth were closely associated with the cycles of the seasons. (Photo taken at Templo Mayor museum)

Inside the Eagle House is a series of rooms where the walls are lined with long benches. Only the Eagle Warriors and similar elites were allowed in this special place. They sat on the benches as they observed, participated in, or led various rituals. The benches show a strong Toltec influence. (Photo taken at the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

An interesting example of the God of Death dressed as an Eagle Warrior. The skull-like face wears a toothy grin and has a bone through its nose. Human hands dangle as earrings from his ears and he wears others as a necklace. His face peers from a huge eagle beak helmet and his right hand holds a weapon raised to strike. In his left hand, he carries a typical round Mexica shield decorated with geometric designs and edged along the bottom with feathers. Extending from his right knee is a set of eagle claws, a typical part of an Eagle Warrior's costume. (Photo taken at the National Museum of Anthropology)

Four pillars once stood at the corners of this small sunken patio. At the top center of the photo is the base of another pillar with a carved flower decoration. Extending along the wall to the right is one of the many benches typical of these rooms. It is likely that ceremonies were conducted within the sunken area while spectators observed from the benches. (Photo taken at the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

Carved stone flowers decorate some of the pillars. The four petals of the flower represent the four cardinal directions of the world, each related to its own god. To the East was Tlaloc, the god of rain, life, and fertility. To the West was Chaichihuitl, related to fertility and to jade. To the North was Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death, with whom we have already made acquaintance. To the south was Xochipilli, the god of dance, music, art, beauty, and flowers. In the center was Tonatiuh, the god of the sun whose face appears in the center of the famous Aztec Calendar. (Photo taken at the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

A corner of one of the benches reveals a colorful bas relief carving. At Tollan, the Toltec capitol, the Palacio Quemado (Burned Palace) has similar rooms with very similar benches to these lining its walls. For political reasons, the Mexica wanted desperately to connect their present with the past greatness of the Toltecs whose empire had fallen hundreds of years before the Mexica arrived on the scene. They scoured the ruins of Tollan for architectural and sculptural artifacts to emulate. It has often been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. (Photo taken at the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

The benches show processions of warriors in full, feathered regalia. Traces of the ancient paint can still be seen. On the lip of the bench above the warriors are what appear to be a series of serpents pursuing each other. This is also a common Toltec theme. The warriors are converging on a zacatapayolli, which was a ball of dried moss or grass used to hold the bloody spines that the elite class utilized in self-sacrifice ceremonies. (Photo taken at the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

A tripod bowl contains spines similar to those used in self-sacrifice rituals. In the ritual, the person would use the spines to pierce his own tongue or genitals. This produced blood for offerings as well as exquisite pain leading to a trance state allowing communication with the gods. In addition to needles like these, the Mexica used spines from the maguay plant, manta ray spines, and obsidian knives. (Photo taken at the National Museum of Anthropology)

The Tzompantli

A tzompantli altar stands adjacent to the House of Eagles in the North Patio. The tzompantli is the structure in the lower right section of the photo with rows of skulls carved into the stone. In the background, the huge Metropolitan Cathedral occupies one whole side of the the Zócalo, as the central plaza of Mexico City is known. All the current buildings surrounding the Zocalo were built over the ruins of the Mexica's Sacred Precinct temples, pyramids, and palaces.  (Photo taken at the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

Detail of the tzompantli, showing the skull rows. The altar was carved with 240 skulls set in rows around the sides. One one side is a stairway flanked by balustrades. A tzompantli very similar to this one stands next to the great Maya Ball Court of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula. There is a great archaeological controversy about the exact relationship between the Maya of Chichen Itza and the Toltec Empire, located in faraway Central Mexico. Mysteriously, many archaeological aspects of Chichen Itza closely resemble those found at Tollan. There is no doubt, however, that the Mexica copied the Toltecs in many aspects of their culture.The site shown above is clearly related to human sacrifice, it is not where the actual skulls of sacrifice victims were displayed, however.  (Photo taken at the Templo Mayor archaeological site)

A selection of the offerings left in the interior of the North Patio tzompantli altar. The interior area of the altar contained offerings including the skeletons of a puma and a wolf, as well as human skulls, musical instruments, jewelry, and other objects.  (Photo taken at Templo Mayor museum)

The Red Temple

The Red Temple is so-named because of the red paint used throughout. The Red Temple is adjacent to the House of Eagles and was used by the Eagle Warriors. This temple is interesting for the very strong influence of Teotihuacan. which the Mexica named "The Place Where The Gods Were Born." Like the Toltec ruins at Tollan, the Mexica ransacked the ruins of Teotihuacan. In fact, they mistakenly thought that Teotihuacan, located about 56 km (35 mi) northeast of Mexico City, was a Toltec ruin itself. The Red Temple uses the signature Teotihuacan talud-tablero architectural forms. These involve a rectangular framed space set above a sloping wall. Above, the cylindrical structure in the middle of the temple was the altar.

Another Teotihuacan feature is this row of red-painted rings. Such circular features are called chalchihuetes, and can be seen at the Temple of the Jaguar along the Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacan.

Other features near the Templo Mayor

An exquisitely carved stone replica of a conch shell was recently discovered in the area. This may have been one of those reported to have been used as decorations on the temple to Tlaloc atop the Templo Mayor. Conch shells were often turned into trumpets in ancient Mesoamerica. This may be yet another connection between Teotihuacan and the Mexica. At the Quetzalpapalotl Palace at Teotihuacan there is a wall mural of a jaguar blowing a conch shell under the image of Tlaloc. Conch shell trumpets were often used ceremonially to summon Tlaloc so that he would bring needed rain.

Snake heads stud the walls in many parts of the Templo Mayor. Worship of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, goes back at least to the Pre-Classic era, and gained prominence at Teotihuacan (100 AD-650 AD) where there is a massive palace dedicated to the snake god. The Mexica believed that Quetzalcoatl ruled the sun during the second of the five successive worlds. He was a relatively benevolent god of creation who gave humans the gift of maiz (corn). They also believed a legend passed down from the Toltecs that he had ruled over Tollan for a time, before being betrayed and driven out. He was said to have departed toward the east from the Gulf Coast on a raft of snakes, pledging to return one day. The Mexica Emperor Moctezuma may have initially treated Hernán Cortés with kid gloves, believing the Spaniard might be the fulfillment of the legend, arriving as he did by sea from the west. However, some historians now dispute this story as a creation of Franciscan friars who arrived after the Conquest.

We encountered this small altar on the edge of the North Patio.  There was no sign or other indication of which god was worshiped at this altar. Visible just above the platform is the weathered head of an animal.

A frowning beast with a curly mane peers out from the wall of the small unidentified alter. There appears to be a hole extending into the wall below him, and another on the top of the stone head. My best guess is that copal incense was burned in the lower hole, with the upper acting as a chimney.

This completes Part 3 of my Mexico City series. Next week I will explore some other aspects of Mexica life along with photos of some of the remarkable and beautiful objects the artisans of this lost world crafted. I always encourage feedback and corrections. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim


  1. The last picture of the lion is clearly colonial Spanish, not Aztec sculpture - probably it is features of the piping and sewage system from the colonial period.

  2. yes, spanish image of a wind god.


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