Saturday, December 29, 2012

Purépecha Fiesta at the Ajijic Plaza

A Purépecha woman dances gaily in the Ajijic Plaza. For several days before Christmas, a group of crafts people from the State of Michoacan set up booths in the Ajijic Plaza. They not only displayed their beautiful hand-crafted wares, but they put on free performances of dances traditional to their Purépecha ethnic group. The woman above wears a hand-embroidered huipil (blouse) and her hair is decorated with brightly-colored ribbons woven into her braids. In this posting, we'll first look at the dances and costumes of the participants, and then examine some of the wide variety of traditional crafts they created. All of these have a history that goes back centuries.

Contrary to popular perception, the Aztec (Mexica) Empire was not the only major political entity in Central Mexico at the time the Spanish arrived. Northwest of the Mexica's territory lay the lands occupied by their chief rivals, a powerful society who called themselves Purépecha but whom the Spanish dubbed the Tarascans. Although they attempted it numerous times, the Mexica were never able to conquer them. The heartland of the Purépecha is the State of Michoacan, but their empire reached into some of the valleys of Jalisco and Guanajuato, and even the eastern part of Lake Chapala, near where I live. A few decades before the Conquest, the Purépecha Emperor Tangaxuan II attempted to seize the salt flats around the dry lakes in the long valley leading south from present-day Guadalajara toward Colima. Salt was an extremely important commodity for preserving food and the Purépecha had few deposits in their area. The Salitre (Salt) War began in 1480 AD and eventually ended in 1510 AD with the defeat of the Purépecha by King Coliman (from whom Colima got its name). Tangaxuan II's forces finally withdrew back across the mountains toward their Michoacan heartland. Evidence of the extent of their empire's reach can be found in Purépecha place names across Central Western Mexico.

Beauties and Beasts

A ceramics vendor danced with  mask-maker clothed in some of his own creations. Along with her huipil, the woman wears an ankle-length skirt and, over it, an embroidered apron. The designs of the huipil and apron embroidery identify the village where she lives. In the rural areas of Michoacan, nearly all the women wear traditional clothing, while the men have largely adopted blue jeans and cowboy boots and broad-brimmed hats. Most Purépecha music and dances are specific to a place and conducted at specific occasions or celebrations. The Festival of the Purépecha Race, held annually in Zacán, Michoacan, showcases the various music dance traditions. These traditions are so unique that they have been designated an Intangible World Heritage by UNESCO.

A Gringo gets into the act. The dancers were not content to keep the fun among themselves, but drew various of the onlookers into the performance. The foreigners could not dance as beautifully as the Purépecha, but they gave it their best. The man above tips his hat in a courtly fashion as he joins his partner. His head is covered with the confetti that typically accompanies fiestas. One of the most famous Purépecha dances, which unfortunately was not performed that day, is the Danza de los Viejitos (Dance of the Little Old Men). In it, young men wear masks portraying them as white Spaniards, and clothing that make them appear to be elderly. They totter around through their dance steps supporting themselves with canes. Although they imitate elderly people, the dance is really quite athletic and charming. The origins of the dance are disputed, but one account holds that it was intended to mock the Purépecha's Spanish overlords after the Conquest. The Spanish did no physical work, but only sat on their horses watching their indigenous laborers. Due to lack of exercise, the Spaniards' bodies deteriorated and they aged quickly. The Danza de los Viejitos is said to mock the weak foreigners and their many infirmities, one of the few ways a subjugated people could get back at their oppressors.

The event's sense of good-natured fun can be seen on the faces of these women. In addition to the rest of their beautiful outfits, most of the women wore rebozos, the ubiquitous shawl seen everywhere in Mexico. As part of their dance routines, they swirled the rebozos dramatically. The aprons are called delantals. Their cross-stitch embroidery can take as much a three months to complete. The skirts the women wear are usually pleated and often made of synthetic material. Not visible under the delantals in this photo are woven belts created on back-strap looms, a technology thousands of years old.

Beauty and the Beast. Although he looked pretty scary in his outfit, this "monster" had a pretty humorous act. He not only cavorted with the female dancers, but he moved out into the mostly foreign crowd, twirling and gyrating and hilariously confronting various of the observers. He even persuaded a couple of the foreign women to dance with him.

A Gringa matches steps with her Purépecha partner. The actual dances consisted of a set of shuffling steps as the dancers swayed their bodies back and forth and occasionally twirling while displaying the rebozo, akin to a bird spreading its wings. As the Purépecha did it, the dance was graceful and charming. As for the Gringos, well, they looked like they were having a lot of fun.


A mask-maker shows how one of his wares looks in action. Piercing red eyes, long drooping horns, and "blood"-stained fangs adorn this creation, worn by one of the mask-makers in the dances. Masks created for ritual purposes have a history that goes far back into pre-hispanic history. Three thousand years ago, the Olmecs made jaguar masks to use in their ceremonies. The Purépecha of Michoacan developed their own style long before the Spanish arrived, and continue to this day to make wonderfully bizarre masks like the one above. Interestingly, two of the most famous Purépecha dances use masks modeled not on on their own faces but on those of Caucasians and Africans. In addition to the Danza de los Viejitos mentioned above, the indigenous people of Michoacan perform the Danza de los Negritos (Dance of the Little Blacks). The origins of this dance and its black masks appears to be the appearance of large numbers of Africans in Nueva España. By the end of the 17th Century, as much as 90% of the indigenous population had died off in some areas due to disease and harsh working conditions. Because of its remoteness, Michoacan lost only about 30%, but that was devastating enough. The labor shortage caused the Spanish to import as many as 250,000 black slaves to Nueva España, some of whom ended up in Michoacan and became the models for the Danza de los Negritos.

The artisans displayed a wide variety of masks in various stages of completion. Note that the Caucasian masks are not white, as Caucasians like to think of themselves, but pink which is closer to their actual coloring. The origins of the Purépecha people are murky, although it is thought that they arrived in the Lake Patzcuaro area of Michoacan in the 12th Century AD. They speak a language unlike that of any other in Mesoamerican. Linguists have found some relation to the languages spoken by the Quecha of Peru and the Zuni of the Southwest U.S. It is therefore possible that the Purépecha arrived either from South America (probably by boat) or from the desert wastes to Mesoamerica's north in one of the many waves of Chichameca invaders. They may also be a cultural mix of these two groups. They do seem to have had a strong connection with the South America. This is shown not only by their language roots, but by their extensive use of copper to make tools and weapons, a technology that archaeologists believe they obtained through trade with the West Coast of South America. The Mexica, their closest rivals, used copper primarily for personal decoration, but preferred obsidian for \weapons. The Purépecha's use of copper weapons may have been one of the reasons why the Mexica failed to conquer them, despite efforts that were intense and sustained.

A devil, under construction. The Purépecha, like many Mexican mask-makers, like to incorporate multiple animals in one mask. In addition to animal horns and fangs the devil face above has a pair of snakes writhing from under the eyes, along the face, and meeting near the end of the extended tongue. Only brightly colored paint will be required to create a fearsome-looking end product. The famous Danza de los Toritos (Dance of the Little Bulls) uses masks adorned with the horns of bulls. The dance was originally performed in 1538 AD at the request of Bishop Vasco Quiroga as a way to entice the indigenous people back down from the mountains. They had fled there to escape the atrocities of Conquistador Nuño de Guzman, 16th Century Spain's version of Heinrich Himmler. Quiroga's Danza de los Toritos was a success, and has been performed in local villages ever since.

A devil in full regalia. This colorful mask not only bears the typical horns and fangs, but also has a small cat's head growing out of the forehead, complete with its own set of fangs.. You can see one of the eye holes for the wearer just below the painted eye on the left. The detailed craftsmanship and vivid colors of masks like this have led Carole and I to gradually assemble a small collection of wildly imaginative masks from Michoacan, Guerrero, Oaxaca, and elsewhere.

Ceramic Plates and dishes from Tzintzuntzan

A skeletal mermaid decorates large platter. Each of the tables displayed its beautiful crafts accompanied by a sign showing the name of the village where the objects were created. Skeletal figures like the mermaid above are called Catrinas, and originated with Jose Guadalupe Posada, a 19th Century political cartoonist. Posada liked to mock the pretensions of the Mexican upper classes by portraying them as skeletons dressed in fine clothes.The mermaid platter came from the Michoacan town of Tzintzuntzan ("Place of the Hummingbirds"). It was the capital of the Purépecha Empire when the Spanish arrived in 1519 AD.  Tzintzuntzan was the most important of three cities along the shores of Lake Patzcuaro. The Lake, at 1,920 m (6300 ft) is Mexico's highest. In 1400 AD, the Purépecha Emperor Tariácuri divided his realm into three parts, each headed by of one of his sons. Tanganxoán received Tzintzuntzan, Patzcuaro went to Irepan, and his third son Hiquingare got Ihuatzio. Eventually Tanganxoán managed to reunify the Empire and restore Tzintzuntzan as the chief city. He accomplished this just in time, because the Mexica were on the rise. Between 1450 and 1521, the Purépecha fought an intermittent war with them, ending only when the Mexica Empire was destroyed by the Spanish.

A coyote cavorts in the center of another large plate. For thousands of years, coyotes (in Nahautl: coyotl) have been viewed as special creatures by the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the western US.  Seen as a trickster, shape-shifter, and a bit of a clown, he is thought to have a direct link to the Spirit World. The coyote is intelligent, adaptable, and very cunning, with capabilities superior to his cousin, the wolf. In fact, wolves have become an endangered species, while coyotes have actually increased in population in the face of advancing civilization and have even been found roaming the streets of major US cities.

The beautifully illustrated fish on this platter highlight the Purépecha talent for fishing. Since they settled around a large lake, in a high mountain area with numerous smaller lakes, the Purépecha naturally became fisherman. In fact, they were known for this as much or more than as farmers. Even today, local fishermen use dugout canoes and huge nets that look like butterfly wings to catch carp, trout, charal, and whitefish. They also catch a local species of salamander for both human consumption and medicinal purposes.

Catrinas & Critters

Classic Catrinas show off their 19th Century finery. While this style of Catrina is still very popular, craftspeople throughout Mexico have expanded on the original concept. You can find skeleton figures--both human and animal--engaged in an incredible variety of day-to-day activities, from making tortillas in the kitchen, to playing golf, to riding bicycles, and so on. The fertile volcanic soil in the mountain valleys, and the fish-abundant lakes provided a stable economic base. With the leisure time that resulted, the pre-hispanic Purépecha could expand their skills as craftspeople. In ancient times they were known as skilled weavers who incorporated brilliant hummingbird feathers into their designs. They developed their skills as potters and basket makers since there were plenty of clay and rushes available along the lake shores. Forests thickly covered the mountainsides, so woodworking was another specialty. Their copper products were traded throughout Mesoamerica. The Purépecha have maintained their craftsmanship into the 21st Century, in spite of the ferocious 16th Century depredations they experienced under Nuño de Guzman.

Whimsical devils adorn another table at the Fair. In the foreground, a fat-bellied devil figure invites you to place something in his pot "belly." Behind him, another devil revs up his motorcycle. After Nuño de Guzman was finally sent back to Spain in manacled disgrace, Bishop Quiroga finally succeeded in enticing the Purépecha down from their mountain hideouts. In 1516 AD, Englishman Sir Thomas More had published his thoughts on the ideal society in a book called Utopia. Quiroga had read Moore's work and was a big fan. He decided to put More's ideas into practice in Michoacan. His strategy was to build upon the Purépecha's existing high levels of craftsmanship by teaching them European methods. Quiroga introduced the potter's wheel, Spanish-style looms and metallurgical techniques, and leather working, among other things. To ensure that every community could support itself, he persuaded each village to specialize in a different craft. After 500 years, this pattern of specialization still exists in the various towns around Lake Patzcuaro.

Another strange and whimsical creature seems to creep across the table top. It is not clear whether this is a spider or an octopus. There is so much going on with this creature, it is difficult to know where to examining him. For one thing, he appears to have numerous passengers, perhaps providing a reason for his rather grumpy expression. Perched on the ends of each of his legs (tentacles?) is a pretty mermaid. Each of them holds a different object in her arms, some of which appear to be musical instruments which they are playing. Above the heads of the mermaids, crocodile figures cling, with their mouths gaping open. On top of the creature's head sits a small mer-family, including a male and female and their mer-child. There is more, but you get the idea. Somebody had fun making this critter.

Textile Weaving 

Bishop Quiroga would have immediately recognized this free-standing, foot-powered loom. The vendor told me that she had made all of her ware on this machine, and I persuaded her to show me how it worked. She pumps a treadle with her left foot, providing the power for the device. There are almost no metal parts to the loom, making it quite similar to those introduced in to Nueva España in the 16th Century. The "free-standing" loom gets its name from the fact that its support comes from the frame of the device itself, as opposed to a back-strap or other kind of loom which is supported by being attached to a wall or tree or other solid support. While the Purépecha had a long history of weaving, it was with vegetable fibres and they never had access to wool until the Spanish arrived. The first sheep came to the Americas with Columbus, as a walking food supply. They bred well in the West Indies, and the descendants of Colombus' sheep accompanied Cortés to the mainland of Mexico in 1519 AD.

The mechanism's major parts are all wood, connected by twine. When asked how long it took to create one of her long and intricately woven rebozos, she responded "una hora" (one hour). I was amazed at the efficiency of this machine, particularly since it requres no external source of power other than the human that operates it, and given that its design is more than 500 years old. It takes more carpentry skill to construct a free-standing loom than the older traditional designs like the back-strap, but it can be made of rough lumber, as this one is, or even stripped logs. A single free-standing frame can serve several families. Assuming each family has a set of the moveable parts, they can use the frame in alternation.

The weaver could move the shuttle device with a flick of her wrist. The shuttle moves back and forth in the wooden trough seen above. By flicking her wrist back and forth, she moves the shuttle in the trough. This weaves the weft (short cross thread of the woven cloth) through the woof (long blue and white threads wound around the spindle). The twine attached to the cross pieces paralleling the trough are called the harnesses. The simplicity of the loom, and the ease with which she operated it was impressive.

Pots & Basketry

Maiz cobs decorate a display of large pots and other ceramics from the village of Cocucho.  This village is famous for its large pots colored with a stain made from maiz (corn). The technique used by the villagers of Cocucho comes from Africa and was taught to their ancestors by the artisans brought in by Bishop Quiroga. The pots are formed by hand and the potters use local river rocks to burnish them. Charcoal is used to fire the pots and then the corn meal is splashed onto the surface. No potter's wheel or other mechanical device is used to create these fine wares. The potters are all women who were taught by their mothers and grandmothers. The men play no role in making the pottery.

Basketry of all sizes and shapes is created in the village of La Granada. They even make small animals like the crocodile and reindeer you can see on the lower left. The baskets and other objects are made from local natural materials collected and woven by the villagers. Some of the typical materials used by Michoacan basket makers are tule, reeds, and bullrushes gathered from the lakesides. Willow twigs were another widely available natural material. Wheat straw wasn't used until the Spanish introduced that grain.

Reindeer, wreaths, and tree ornaments were offered in this booth. It was just before Christmas when I visited this Fair, so some of the woven fibre objects were specifically devoted to that celebration. Purépecha artisans and craftspeople are rightly viewed as some of the most talented and creative in Mexico. In a country filled with talented, creative, artistic people, that is saying something.

This completes my posting on the Purépecha Fair. I hope you have enjoyed it. I always encourage comments and corrections. If you would like to leave a comment, either use 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

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

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Mexico City Part 5: Aztec Cosmology

The Bat God is not a deity whom I would want to encounter in dark alley. The god Camazotz was associated with vampire bats, blood, caves, and the night sky. The statue above was reassembled from fragments found in the town of Chalco on the outskirts of Mexico City. The worship of the Bat God originated with the Zapotecs of the Oaxaca area, and later spread to both the Maya and then the Mexica. It is impossible to understand Mexica society unless you have some grasp of their view of the cosmos and the pantheon of gods who occupied it. All state religions are heavily influenced by the need to justify the social, economic, and political arrangements of the regime in power. In this, the Mexica were no different than any of the Christian European governments of their day. This doesn't mean that the Mexica ruling class were just cynical manipulators of their own commoners and others whom they conquered. To the contrary, it appears that virtually everyone in the society, from the peasant in his field to the Emperor on his throne, firmly believed in the efficacy of their gods and the rites they practiced to assuage them, including mass human sacrifice. After all, hadn't Huitzilopochtli, the Mexica god of the sun and war, led them from their hunter-gatherer beginnings to achieving pre-eminent power in their world within a few short centuries? In this posting, I will outline the four dimensional structure of the Mexica cosmos, and provide a look at some of the more important gods and goddesses populating that world.

The Mexica Cosmos and pantheon of gods

Coatlicue was known as the "Mother of the Gods." Her name means "Skirt of Snakes." This enormous statue is 3.05 m (10 ft) tall and carved from a single block of stone weighing several tons. Coatlicue's feet have huge claws and her skirt is made up of writhing snakes, held up by a belt with a human skull for a buckle. She wears a necklace of severed human hands and hearts. Her head is made up of two fanged snakes facing each other. At one point in her story, Coatlicue was decapitated (but apparently not killed) and two great jets of blood spurted up which became snake heads. She was the mother of 400 gods and goddesses and so achieved the name "Mother of the Gods." In addition, she was the "Earth Goddess who gives birth to all celestial things", "Goddess of Fire and Fertility", "Goddess of Life, Death, and Rebirth", and "Mother of the Southern Stars". She was also the patron of women who died in childbirth, a form of death that, in terms of honor, was equivalent to a warrior dying in battle. Interestingly, Coatlicue was not the supreme deity of the universe. That honor goes to Ometeotl, the original, uncreated god, known as the God of Duality who represented the unification of opposites. The dual male and female forms of Ometeotl were Ometecuhtli and Omecíhuatl, respectively. It was through these two that Ometeotl created the universe and all within it. Duality as a concept (male/female, life/death, beneficial/malignant, day/night, etc) was an central theme in Mexica religious thought and art. Ometeotl was so remote and unknowable that no statues or other representations were ever created of the Dual God. Although King Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco did build the only temple ever created for Ometeotl, it had no statue or other image within it. At the highest levels of Mexica religious thought, all other gods were simply facets of Ometeotl. Coatlicue, therefore, was a manifestation of Omecihuatl, the female part of the Dual God. However, ordinary people could not relate to such an intangible deity as Ometeotl, so they chose to regard his various facets as individual and separate gods with their own histories, personalities, and particular areas of influence. In the Mexica view, Coatlicue's most important feature was that she gave birth to Huitzilopochtli, their patron god.

Huitzilopochtli dances in full regalia. Notice the eagle attached to his back and the eagle helmet he wears. Eagles were the physical manifestations of this god of the sun and war, and it is no coincidence that the House of the Eagle Warriors was located right next to the Templo Mayor, on top of which stood a temple to Huitzilopochtli. The eagle soars across the sky, like the sun, and is also a fierce predator, hence its relation to war. Also, check out the copper bells on the edges and face of his shield and on the top of the weapon he carries in his left hand. More bells extend from the back of his feathered head dress. They appear very similar to the bells shown in Part 4 of this series. Huitzilopochtli was not only a colorful god, but apparently quite noisy. The painting is from the 16th Century Codex Telleriano-Remensis, an early Spanish reproduction of a Mexica story-painting. Huitzilopochtli was a little-known patron god of a minor tribe of hunter-gatherers until they gained power. According to their migratory legend, the Mexica found a statue of Huitzilopochtli in a cave at Coatepec ("The Hill of Snakes") which was his birthplace. His mother, Coatlicue had already given birth to 400 other gods, including at least one sister named Coyolxáuhqui. One day the Mother of the Gods was sweeping the temple on top of Coatepec and noticed a ball of hummingbird feathers. Not thinking much of it, she picked up the ball and tucked it into her bosum. When she finished sweeping, she looked for the ball but couldn't find it because it had become the fetus of Huitzilopochtli in her womb. In the Nahuatl language of the Mexica, Huitzilopochtli means "Left-handed Hummingbird". Coatlicue's daughter Coyolxáuhqui suspected an illegitimate pregnancy, became enraged, and plotted her mother's demise.

The huge stone head of Coyolxáuhqui is similar in size to the great Olmec heads.  Her name means "the one with bells painted on her face". The bells can be seen carved on either side of her nose. Her eyes are closed in death because the sculpture represents her decapitated head. Coyolxáuhqui roused her 400 brothers against her mother's supposed indiscretion. Together, they decapitated Coatlicue, resulting in the two spurts of blood that became the snake heads sculpted on her statue in the second photo of this posting. However, Huitzilopochtli emerged from his mother's womb fully formed and armed with a fire weapon. He destroyed his treacherous siblings, thereupon becoming the God of War. He was especially angry at his sister and completely dismembered her, throwing her pieces to the bottom of Coatepec hill. The Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlán is a pyramidal reproduction of Coatepec. The act of throwing the bodies of sacrificial victims down the broad stairway reenacts Huitzilopchtli's treatment of his sister. (See the sculpture of this in Part 2 of this series) His mother somehow survived the loss of her head and grieved for her slain children in spite of their attempt to kill her. In order to continue to see them, she turned the male children into stars and Coyolxáuhqui became the moon. Every morning, the triumph of Huitzilopochtli over his sister is reenacted as the sun triumphs over the previous night's moon. As the lunar month passes, pieces of moon-goddess Coyolxáuhqui disappear day by day, recalling her dismemberment by her sun-god brother. The Mexica carried the statue of Huitzilopochtli they found at Coatepec as a war emblem for the rest of their migration. Their first act after founding their capital of Tenochtitlán was to build a temple for him. The temple was rebuilt numerous times, taking its final form as the famous Templo Mayor only a few years before the Spanish arrived.

The massive sculpture of Tonatiuh, God of the 5th Sun, is shown at the Templo Mayor museum.
This piece was so large that I could only photograph it by climbing to the second-story balcony of the Templo Mayor museum. Found at the base of the great pyramid, the carved stone relief was created during the last years before the Spanish Conquest, a time in which Mexica artistry and power were at their height. Tonatiuh is a good example of how confusing the Mexica cosmology can be. He shares the title "God of the Sun" with Huitzilopochtli, along with other attributes such as a physical manifestation as an eagle and a thirst for human blood. He was already important among the various Chichimeca tribes before the Mexica arrived. The Mexica shared a language and various cultural aspects with their now urbanized predecessors. The new arrivals were, in a sense, cultural sponges, and absorbed into their cosmology much that they encountered during their migration. Apparently they thought it important to associate their patron god with the widely recognized God of the 5th Sun. It is significant, however, that the great sculpture of Tonatiuh lay at the bottom of the Templo Mayor, while Huitzilopochtli resided at the temple's top. Ironically, a number of sculptural images of Tonatiuh survived the Conquest, including this one and the one center of the so-called Aztec Calendar, while no images exist of Huitzilopochtli other than various paintings in post-Conquest codicies. Tonatiuh's face is easily recognizable in his various sculptures. Always there are the half-moon eyes, the grinning mouth, and the long serrated tongue extending down toward his chest. The tongue represents a sacrificial knife.  Tonatiuh, like Huitzilopochtli, is the God of the Fifth Sun, which shines over the current era of history. The previous four suns had their own gods, but were destroyed, each in turn, along with the worlds over which they shined and all the people living in them. Other gods sacrificed themselves in order to create Tonatiuh, and to get him moving across the sky, an act greatly beneficial to human beings of the 5th World.  Humans, therefore, were expected to reciprocate and sacrifice themselves to nourish Tonatiuh and enable his cyclical daily journey. Failure to produce human blood in sufficient quantity would stop the sun and result in the destruction of the entire world. The Mexica, therefore, viewed themselves as performing a noble public service through their industrial-scale efforts at human sacrifice.

Tlaloc, the Rain God, was another deity adopted by the Mexica during their migration. Above, Tlaloc is shown on the side of a large pot found at his temple atop the Templo Mayor. Like Tonatiuh, he is easily recognizable and his image can be found throughout Mesoamerica. According to some interpretations of his myth, he was one of the original gods created by Ometeotl. He is always shown wearing round "goggles" over his eyes, with fangs descending from his mouth, and a forked tongue hanging down. As might be expected in agricultural societies dependent upon sufficient quantities of rain, Tlaloc was extremely important. He was also very ancient. His painted image can be found in Teotihuacan on the wall of a palace near the Pyramid of the Moon, a structure already in ruins at least 500 years before the Mexica arrived. In fact, Tlaloc was probably worshipped by Mesoamerican agricultural societies for many centuries before Teotihuacan was even founded. At Tenochtitlán, Tlaloc shared "top-billing" with Huitzilopochtli, with his own temple sharing space with the god of sun and war at the crest of the Templo Mayor. In line with the concept of duality, he was seen as both beneficial and dangerous. While he provided rain for crops, he also sent great storms, lightning, hail, and floods. Not surprisingly, Tlaloc was believed to appreciate regular donations from the Mexica blood drives. A chacmool reclines just outside his temple atop the Templo Mayor with a bowl ready to receive human hearts. Tlaloc's first wife, Xochiquetzal ("Goddess of Flowers") was stolen by another god, so he married Chalchiuhtlicue ("She who wears a jade skirt"). She was the goddess of rivers, lakes, streams, and other freshwater bodies. She was also associated with the first use of maiz (corn) and with snakes. Tlaloc's big sister was Huixocihuatl ("Salt Lady"), the goddess of salt water, and patroness of those who produced salt. Oddly enough, she was also patroness of dissolute women, so perhaps she should have been called the Salty Lady.

Like Santa, Tlaloc needed little helpers. It seems making rain for the entire world was a big and complex job, because Tlaloc had four small helpers, including the one shown above, who were called the Tlaloque (plural of Tlaloc). Notice the signature "goggles" on the figure. Mexica high priests probably saw them as simple facets of the rain god, but common folks, like farmers, thought they were specific gods with their own attributes. The Tlaloque stayed busy brewing up rain in mountaintop jars. These they broke to send out rain and in the process created lightning and thunder. They also lurked about caves where water emerged from the underworld. Each of the Tlaloque was assigned to one of the four cardinal directions, and they acted as pillars to hold up the sky. Each also had his own color: red, yellow, white, and blue.  In some descriptions, the four Tlaloque carried jars about with them, respectively containing rain, frost, drought, and disease. Even as the Mexica cosmos had four directions on a horizontal plane, it also had a vertical plane. There were 13 levels of the upper world and 9 levels of the underworld. The point where they met was everyday reality. The top level was the home of the intangible God of Duality, Ometeotl. The ninth (bottom) level was called Mictlán, and was ruled by Mictlancihuatl, the God of Death and his goddess wife Mictlantecuhtli. Tlaloc himself ruled over the 4th level of the Upper World, called Tlalocan ("Place of Tlaloc"). It was filled with green plants and sunshine and was the final destination of those who died in water-related accidents,such as drowning or lightning strikes.

Quetzalcoatl was the famous Plumed Serpent. Like Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl had been worshiped throughout Mesoamerica since very ancient times. The first known image of a feathered serpent is a sculpture found at the the Olmec site of La Venta on the Gulf Coast. It was carved approximately 900 BC. Quetzalcoatl became a major figure in Mesoamerica with the rise of Teotihuacan about 100 AD. They dedicated a huge palace to him, heavily decorated with feathered snakes. Even after Teotihuacan fell in 650 AD, worship of the snake god continued to spread. In the Maya country, he went under the name of Kulkulkan. The great pyramid in Yucatan's Chichen Itza is called the Temple of Kulkulkan. In the great religious center of Cholula, near modern Puebla, Mexico's largest pyramid (second biggest in the world) was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. Another key center for plumed serpent worship at that time was the important trading city of Cacaxtla. Next, the Toltecs began their rise and they adopted Quetzalcoatl as one of their major gods. An important Toltec legend was that he adopted human form as Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, the first ruler at their capital of Tollan. The Mexica accepted the plumed serpent as a major figure in their pantheon in good part because the Toltec connection helped legitimize them. In the Sacred Precinct at Tenochtitlán, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl once stood directly facing the great staircase leading up to the top of the Templo Mayor. The Mexica believed Quetzalcoatl was one of the original four children of Ometeotl, along with Huitzilopochtli, Xipe Totec, and Tezcatlipoco. These four gods then created all the other gods. In the Mexica cosmic sequence of five successive worlds, Quetzalcoatl was the sun god of the Second World, which ended with a great hurricane.

The bust of a priest of Quetzalcoatl wears a rather jovial expression. The importance of the plumed serpent is shown by the fact the the two most important priests at the Templo Mayor both possessed titles which included Quetzalcoatl's name. A god so ancient naturally picked up a number of attributes and responsibilities along the way. The four sons of Ometeotl were each connected to one of the four cardinal directions and Quetzalcoatl presided over the West. He was connected to Venus (the Morning Star). The plumed serpent was the god of light, mercy and, at least in the Toltec legend, he had opposed the practice of human sacrifice. Many of his facets related to important aspects of civilization. For example, he gave maiz (corn) to mankind, a key factor to moving from the hunter-gatherer stage to a settled life. He also invented books and the calendar and was known as the patron of priests, urban centers, and culture.

Ehécatl, God of the Wind, dances as he plays with a snake.  I especially liked this jolly, pot-bellied fellow. There are a number of statues of Ehécatl ("wind" in Nahautl) in the National Museum of Anthropology, and most show him toying with a snake. He is often shown as a playful monkey with a strange beak-like object protruding from his mouth. This may represent a musical instrument through which he would blow to create the wind. He was sometimes called Ehécatl-Quetzacoatl by the Mexica, who viewed him as an aspect of Quetzalcoatl. This probably explains the snake. However, Ehécatl was a very ancient god in his own right. Last year, Carole and I visited a unique spiral pyramid where the Wind God was worshiped. It was located at the Pre-Classic era (800 BC-300 BC) ruin of Xochitecatl, north of Puebla. Its construction pre-dated the Mexica by at least 1500 years. Among these early cultures, Ehécatl was a considered to be a creator god and also a culture hero (a human being with special powers, like Hercules of the Greek myths). As Quetzalcoatl became more important, the two gods apparently merged. Temples to Ehécatl are usually cylindrical to imitate the circular motion of the whirlwind. Because the wind can blow from anywhere, the Wind God is associated with all four of the cardinal directions. The statue above was discovered in a cylindrical Wind God temple unearthed in Tenochtitlán's Sacred Precinct during the building of a subway. The temple still stands in the subway station in its original site. According to the Mexica creation myth, when the 5th (current) World was created, the sun and the moon did not move. Finally the Wind God blew on them and the sun began to travel across the sky, which eventually also set the moon in motion. One of Ehécatl's most important jobs was to assist Tlaloc by blowing on the rain clouds to make them move in at the start of the wet season, He thus became associated with fertility and agriculture.

Tezcatlipoca's physical manifestation was jaguar. The stone carving of a jaguar shown above is called a cuauhxicalliHuman hearts were placed in the bowl sunk in its back. Tezcatlipoca was one of the four original sons of Ometeotl, the God of Duality. Although they were collectively referred to as the "Four Tezcatlipoca," the other three (Huitzilopochlti, Xipe Totec, and Quetzalcoatl) also had their own names. In the cosmic duality of the Mexica world, Tezcatlipoca was viewed as Quetzalcoatl's dark side. Quetzalcoatl was the god of light, mercy, culture, and civilization and his color was white. Tezcatlipoca was the god of the night sky, enmity, discord and war, and his color was black. Huitzilopochtli's eagle hunted during the day, while Tezcatlipoca's jaguar hunted at night. The Jaguar God's name in Nahuatl means "Smoking Mirror", referring to the obsidian used to create mirrors. He is often depicted with his right foot replaced by an obsidian mirror. This was the result of his theft of Xochiquetzal, the beautiful first wife of Tlaloc. When Tlaloc came for revenge, Tezcatlipoca lost his foot. He also came into conflict with Quetzalcoatl, who grew jealous of the Jaguar God's position as Sun God of the 1st World. The Snake God clobbered Tezcatlipoca over the head with a stone club. In his rage the God of the Night Sky summoned his jaguars to devour all humans and that effectively extinguished the 1st World. Quetzalcoatl became Sun God of the 2nd World, but Tezcatlipoca sought revenge through sorcery and Quetzalcoatl was forced to step down as Sun God.  In the Toltec legend, Quetzalcoatl was the first ruler of their capital Tollan and opposed human sacrifice. Tezcatlipoca represented the war-like impulses of the Toltecs and advocated such sacrifices, along with military conquests. He got Quetzalcoatl drunk so that he disgraced himself and used the occasion to pull off a coup d'etat. Quetzalcoatl was forced to flee, departing with his followers on a raft of snakes into the Gulf of Mexico, but vowing to return. In the legend, Tezcatlipoca's militaristic spirit led to the creation of the Toltec Empire, with its tzompantli (skull racks), eagle and jaguar warrior cults, and obsession with death. All these features were later slavishly copied by the Mexica. At a ceremony each year, the Mexica priests of Tezcatlipoca would choose a handsome young man to impersonate the god. For the following year, the man lived lavishly, dressing in jewels and enjoying four beautiful young wives. At the ceremony following the end of his year as Tezcatlipoca, the young man would voluntarily climb the steps of the god's temple where he was sacrificed, and another young man would be chosen. The body of the sacrificed man was ritually consumed as part of the festivities.

Mictecacihuatl was Goddess of Death, and wife of the Death God Mictlantecuhtil. They lived together in a windowless house in Mictlan, the lowest of nine levels of the Underworld. (See Part 3 of this series for a photo and description of her husband) Her main functions included guarding the bones of the deceased and presiding over the annual festivals of the dead.  Mictecacihuatl, sometimes called Cihuateotl, is often depicted in a seated position, with her clawed hands raised to rake the flesh off the bones of the newly dead, and with her fleshless jaws open to devour the stars when daylight arrived. When a Mexica died, the family began a 40-day ritual that included the sacrifice of a dog called a xoloizcuintli. The person's body was wrapped in simple matting or precious clothes, depending upon social status, and a jade bead was placed in the mouth. The body was then cremated. This began a long journey through the nine levels of the underworld involving many dangers, and during which the body lost much of its flesh. The jade bead (or blue pebble for the poor) represented the heart and was used to divert monsters encountered along the way who would devour the bead instead of the deceased. Finally, the dead person reached a river called Chignahuapan. Here he encountered the xoloizcuintli sacrificed at the funeral. The dog acted as a guide to cross the stream to finally reach Mictlan, "the dark and cold place of no return." It is believed that the Mexican fiesta called the Day of the Dead may have arisen from Mictecacihuatl's festivals, after the ancient Mexica rituals became mixed with Spanish Catholic customs.

Xolotl, the dog-faced god. He was associated with both lightning and death. The xoloicuintli dog of the death ritual is a representative of Xolotl. Mexica cosmic duality again comes into play with a connection between Xolotl and Quetzalcoatl. Xolotl was connected with Venus as the Evening Star.  Quetzalcoatl also had a connection to Venus, but as the Morning Star. Therefore Xolotl was his twin. On one occasion, Xolotl acted as Quetzalcoatl's guide when he returned from a mission to Mictlan. The Plumed Serpent had gone there to recover the bones of the dead to use as the materials to repopulate the world. Xolotl's regular duties included guiding the sun as it made its way through the Underworld at night and acting as the god of fire and bad luck.

Next week I will continue my exploration of Mexica Cosmology with more fascinating gods and some examples of offerings and sacrifice rituals. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would like to leave a comment or correction, please do so either 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

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mexico City Part 4: Artisans of the Aztec Empire

Skulls inlaid with tuquoise mosaic were among the more macabre forms of Mexica art. The Mexica (Aztec) Empire was far-flung and could demand tribute from many different parts of Mesoamerica. The Mixtecs of Oaxaca were especially skilled at this type of art, and the tribute lists of Mexica Emperor Moctezuma II included demands that the Mixtecs deliver 10 turquoise mosaic skull masks each year. The presence of turquoise in Oaxaca testifies to the extensive trade networks operating at the time, since it could only be obtained from the people of the Pueblo Culture in what is now the Southwestern United States. Hundreds of turquoise mosaic masks have also been found in Teotihuacan, a trading empire that fell 600 years before the Mexica arrived on the scene. Its ruins are located not far from the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City). Wanting to obscure their humble Chichimeca ancestry, the Mexica often adopted the styles and practices of the great Toltec Empire that had preceded them. They may have developed a taste for turquoise inlaid skulls when they looted the ruins of Teotihuacan, which they mistakenly thought was a Toltec site. The existence of turquiose mosaic masks at Teotihuacan indicates that Mesoamerian trade networks were not only broad geographically, but were also very ancient. In this posting, we will take a look at various examples of artisanship during the Mexica Empire (1325 AD-1521 AD) that dominated the Late Post-Classic Era. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

Mexica ideals of male and female beauty

This Mexica face exudes strength and confidence. The sculptor carved the head from volcanic rock, while he fashioned the eyes and teeth from bone and shell. At the time the Spanish arrived, the Mexica were at the height of their power and influence. The face above illustrates their ideal of male strength. The Mexica revived the concept of sculpture-in-the-round, which had not been widely practiced by Mesoamerican artisans since the Olmec period (1500 BC-400 BC), eighteen hundred years before the Mexica founded Tenochtitlán. The various civilizations that existed between them in time practiced relief sculpture almost exclusively. The Mexica did not even know the long-vanished Olmec had onced existed. It is unlikely that any Olmec artifacts, long-buried in the swamps of the Gulf Coast, would have been available to use as models. The use of sculpture-in-the-round resulted from the Mexica re-discovery of a very ancient artistic concept. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

The Mexica sense of female beauty is expressed in this lovely bust. The lower part of the face is painted black, which was often done on real-life ceremonial occasions. The face above is more graceful and sensual than the male bust in the previous photo. Her eyes are partially closed with her lips forming a faint Mona Lisa smile. Completing the pose, she tilts her head slightly back. I thought the whole effect created was a classic "come hither" look. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

Personal decoration

Beautiful jade necklaces like this were worn by the nobility almost exclusively. Various ancient murals, wall reliefs, and sculptures show the upper classes well-adorned with just this sort of finery. In all the ancient Mesoamerican cultures, jade was considered one of the most valuable of all substances, even more valuable than gold or silver. Wars were sometimes fought for control over deposits of this extremely hard green rock. Jade was used to create objects for personal decoration, as well as for sacred purposes, since Olmec times. Tenochtitlán was home to many jade carvers, as well as a vast population of other artists and craftsmen. People who engaged in these various crafts were grouped in their own neighborhoods, with their own customs and rituals. They even had their own goddess, Xochiquetzal ("Quetzal Bird Flower") who was the patroness of artisans who produced luxury items. Many of these craftsmen were native Mexica, but many others migrated to Tenochtitlán from all corners of the empire in order to be close to their wealthy customers. (Photograph taken at the Templo Mayor Museum)

Copper was sometimes used in making jewelry. The copper was imported to the Mexica empire from Western Mexico, where there are extensive deposits of copper ore. Archaeologists now believe that there was an ancient maritime trade connection between Ecuador and Western Mexico which brought metal working technology to the area that now comprises Jalisco, Colima, and Nayarit States. Trade with Ecuador also resulted in the production of certain styles of pottery and the use of shaft tombs for burials. The flat copper pieces above were probably produced by the technique of cold hammering and annealing. Once the metal was extracted from the ore and flattened, it could be cut into various shapes. Sometimes tin was melted into the copper through the annealing process. Mesoamericans never used this process to produce bronze on a large scale, which would have transformed Mesoamerican society, much as it did the ancient civilizations of the Old World. Instead, the tin was used to enhance the color of the copper. In addition to copper, gold and silver were used for jewelry. A small number of copper tools such as tweezers, fish hooks, and small axes have been found, but metal tools never really supplanted the stone, bone, and wood tools that had been used since Paleolithic times. Metals such as copper, gold, and silver were not more widely used as tools because, although they were easier to work than stone, they were also much softer. In addition, obsidian blades could be easily produced with a far greater sharpness than is possible even with surgical steel. Finished metal objects were imported by the Mexica until the later period of their empire when artisans began to flock to Tenochtitlán and produce finished goods there. (Photograph taken at the Templo Mayor Museum)

Artisans also used shells to produce necklaces and other forms of jewelry. People have been using shells to make jewelry for at least 75,000 years. Shells from ocean creatures were another material that had to be imported from the far reaches of the Mexica empire: the Gulf and Pacific coasts. They are particularly useful in making necklaces because they don't need much pre-shaping. They naturally occur in the same size and shape, according to species. All the artisan needs to do is make holes where the shells can be attached in a row to a cord of some sort. (Photograph taken at the Templo Mayor Museum)

Conch shells were particularly prized in the ancient world. Often they were turned into trumpets, but in the examples shows above, conch shells were used to produce rings, skull pendants and the finely crafted piece on the top, known as a scapular (a large pendant worn on the chest), with a delicately carved scene. (Photograph taken at the National Museum of Anthropology)

Ornament inlaid with turquoise and other polished stones. This piece is about the size of a coffee table coaster. Its use is unclear, but it may have been part of a scapular. The people of the Pueblo Culture of Southwestern US mined turquoise for their own use and for trade since very ancient times. Turquoise has been produced from the Cerrillos mine in New Mexico for at least 2000 years and some of it has been recovered from the ruins of Tenochtitlán, 1400 miles to the south. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)


Fragmentary remains of a cotton tilmantli, a toga-like cloak. Because of the climate of Central Mexico, few textiles have survived into the modern era. The ones that did have usually been found in dry caves. Even so, we have the pictures in the Mexica codicies, sculptural depictions of clothing, and the descriptions of the Spanish from shortly after the Conquest.The tilmantli fragment above shows some of the typical styles used by the Mexica, including a fringed edge and a spiral conch design indicating the garment may have originated in a coastal area. During the humble, early years of the Mexica era, the styles and materials of clothing were simple and fairly uniform. This is what might be expected of an egalitarian, hunter-gatherer culture in the process of a migration in which simplicity of lifestyle reflected necessity. After they finally settled in Tenochtitlán and began to acquire wealth and power, a class separation between commoners (farmers, and artisans) and the nobility (warriors, priests, administrators) began to emerge. Clothing styles came to reflect these changes. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

Workers produce dye for coloring cloth. The great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted large panels on the walls of Mexico City's Palacio National to illustrate the long history of what ultimately became the Mexican Republic. A detail of one of these is shown above. Dyes for cloth came from a number of sources. For example, coastal mollusks were used to produce a purple color. Crushing the tiny cochineal insect found on the nopal cactus produced a very popular crimson. As seen above, male commoners generally wore only a loin cloth called a maxtlatli, with a tilmantli for cooler weather. The tilmantli was basically a rectangular piece of cloth worn with the two corners of a short end knotted over one shoulder. The maxtlatli and tilmantli that commoners wore were both made of coarse maguey fibre. They generally went barefoot, since sandals were reserved for the "better classes." However, even the nobility had to remove their sandals when entering temples. With the development of trade routes to the Gulf Coast, raw cotton and cotton cloth made its way to Tenochitlán. Cotton could only be grown in the hot country and therefore was an expensive import, available only to the nobility. Some commoners were traveling merchants, called pochtecas. They became quite wealthy and acquired beautifully woven cotton clothing for their own use. However, they only wore it in private so as not to attract the hostile attention of the nobility. As time went on, laws of increasing severity began to regulate the sort of clothing allowed for the many gradations within each of the classes. (Photo taken at the Palacio National)

Fashionable Mexica ladies show off their finery. The usual female attire consisted of a sleeveless, or short-sleeved, blouse called a huipil, and an ankle length skirt. The higher the social status, the better the material, and the more it was decorated by dyeing, and by embroidering it with colored thread, feathers, shells, or other materials. Beautifully woven cloth and complete sets of clothing were staples on the Emperor's tribute lists. Various localities throughout the empire provided their own designs, such as the spiral conch shell design seen in the tilmantli fragment. Spinning thread and weaving it into cloth were crafts designated for women, and generally done in the home. The cloth produced was used to create clothing for family use and sometimes for trade or tribute purposes. The two women above wear elaborate hairstyles decorated with feathers and cloth. Their huipils and skirts show the geometric patterns popular among the Mexica. The one on the right also wears a multi-strand necklace, probably of jade, with a large round scapular on her chest. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

Musical instruments themselves were often works of art

Carved wooden drums like this teponaztli were used to accompany Mexica singing and dancing. The reclining figure on the drum is a warrior of Tlaxcala, a traditional enemy of the Mexica. It  probably ended up in Mexica possession through capture in war or as a tribute item. A teponaztli was a hollow hardwood log with two parallel slits cut lengthwise and one across in the shape of an "H", as seen above. The instrument was played by one or more drummers equipped with mallets made of rubber balls attached to deer antler handles. The musicians played either in a kneeling position with the instrument laid on pegs just above the ground, or standing as it rested on a trestle about waist high. Smaller versions, called teponaztontli, were carried by the musicians by means of a strap and played as they marched in processions. Another popular percussion instrument was the huehuetl, an upright wooden drum made from a hollow tree trunk. The bottom was open and supported by three legs, while the top opening was covered by tightly stretched leather. There were usually beautiful carvings on the sides. Smaller drums were created using multiple turtle shells, with different sizes for different tones. The musicians also used rattles (yoyotl) made from dried seed pods attached to the ankles of dancers. Other rattles were hand-held and were made of ceramics, gourds, or bone. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

A variety of wind instruments were played. Flutes like this tlapitzalli were ceramic and were made with four finger holes. Other flutes were made of stone such as jadeite and green marble, bone, or reeds. Some instruments used multiple pipes, similar to pan pipes. Still other wind instruments included conch shells, used as trumpets, and various whistles, often shaped like turtles or other small animals. Music made with instruments and song, and the dancing that accompanied them, were considered to be religious acts. They were sacrificial gifts to the gods. Interestingly, there was no word in Nahuatl (the Mexica language) for music, which is referred to as the "art of song", while playing instruments was called "singing with the instrument" and dancing was "singing with the feet". (Photograph taken at the Templo Mayor Museum)

Copper bells were attached to the wrists and ankles and to clothing. The beautiful set above includes the bracelet (or anklet) in the center to which bells were attached. Bells such as these were called oyoalli. The music and singing of the priests during religious ceremonies was considered to be the actual voices of the gods and the priests were simply the media through which the gods communicated to the people. Another important occasion for the use of music and musical instruments was during war. The Eagle and Jaguar warrior societies used drums, whistles, conch trumpets and other instruments to communicate with their troops during battle and to frighten the enemy. (Photograph taken at the Templo Mayor Museum)

The Production of Paper was essential to the empire.

Mexica women manufacture paper from amate bark. Another Diego Rivera mural detail from the Palacio National shows how bark from the amate tree was pounded into shape with a grooved stone held in a flexible twig handle. The amate tree grows in many areas of Mexico, including the part where I live. This wide range was fortunate for the Mexica because a steady supply of bark was needed for the huge amount of paper required by the empire. There were laws and regulations, religious documents, land ownership papers, contracts, histories, messages and many other purposes for which the paper was used. Some of these documents survive in the various Codicies scattered in museums in North America and Europe. Much of our sense of day to day Mexica life comes from the pictures in these documents. Notice the woman in the center foreground who is peering over the shoulder of the woman pounding the bark. The face of the watching woman is that of Diego Rivera himself. The artist often put his own face on figures in his work, as well as the face of his wife Frida Kahlo and those of many of his friends or acquaintances. (Photo taken at the Palacio National)

Sellos were used in an early form of printing. The Spanish word sello means seal or stamp. Devices like those above were used to imprint images on amate paper, textiles, and even on the human body. Ink was spread on the carved surfaces and then the sello was pressed on the surface being imprinted. Sellos used both abstract designs, like the sello on the upper left, and designs of animals or plants, like the rattlesnake in the foreground. They were generally ceramic and some sellos were fashioned in the form of cylindrical rollers. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

Under close supervision, two workers prepare a document. One man stands above them, comparing their work to a design he holds. Another man directs the work of the two men doing the actual inscription. Notice the turquoise scapular worn by the man holding the design paper. It appears similar to the turquoise piece in the last photo of the Personal Decoration section above. Diego Rivera included many such details in his murals that demonstrate a deep knowledge of pre-hispanic archaeology. (Photo taken at the Palacio National)

Detail from the Codex Azcatitlán showing part of the Mexica migratory journey. The Codex was inscribed on amate paper sometime in the late 16th Century. It relates the history of the Mexica beginning with their departure from Aztlan, through their migratory wanderings, to the rise of Tenochtitlán and the Mexica Empire, and ends with the beginning of the Spanish Conquest. In the scene above, two warriors grasp prisoners by locks of their hair (a common way of illustrating subjugation) as they lead them to the tlatoani (chief) who is seated on the throne surmounted by an eagle, a symbol of great power. The curved symbol in front of the tlatoani's face indicates speech and is probably a welcome. Both warriors carry the typical round Mexica shield, and the one in front also carries the fearsome macuahuitli, an obsidian-edged broadsword. Neither of the warriors wears the costume of an eagle or a jaguar, so these figures may reflect a period before those soldier societies were created. However, they seem to be high status individuals, because they wear the sandals which were forbidden to the commoners. The prisoners, a man and a woman by their dress, appear dejected. The man is shown with a speech symbol, probably saying something to the effect of "oh, crap!" The interesting symbols above the heads of the prisoners may represent towns that the Mexica conquered at this stage of their journey. The fate of the prisoners was very likely sacrifice to Huitzilpochitli, the Mexica god of war and the sun who led them on their journey. The footprints that move from left to right at the bottom show the progression of the story as they lead the reader from panel to panel and scene to scene. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

The making of alcoholic beverages

Diego Rivera mural detail showing the making of neutle, the Nahuatl word for pulque. In the center of the painting are a couple of large, broad-leaved maguey plants, one of the most useful of all the plants in the Mexica world. They used the spines on the leaf tips as sewing needles and for piercing tongues and genitals to produce blood for self-sacrifice rituals. From the leaves, called pencas, comes ixtle a fibre from which clothing, rope, sandals and any number of other useful goods could be made. Edible worms live inside the plant that are still considered a delicacy to this day. The heart of the maguey, called the piña, or pineapple, is edible, but the Mexica also used it to produce pulque, an alcoholic beverage with a history many thousands of years old but still enjoyed in today's Mexico. When the Spanish arrived, they introduced the distilling process and used the maguey to produce mezcal, a hard liquor. Blue agave is a relative of maguey, and is used to produce the internationally popular tequila. (Photo taken at the Palacio National)

This stone rabbit was a symbol of drunkenness. The maguey plant was important enough to have its own goddess, Mayahuel. According to Mexica cosmology, she was once the companion of Quezalcoatl. At one point, while the two of them were fleeing from the tzitzimime (star demons), they tried to hide in the branches of a tree. Unfortunately, Mayahuel was discovered and torn to bits. After Quetzalcoatl buried her pieces, each of her 400 breasts grew up as a maguey plant, and that's how the Mexica got neutle, their alcoholic drink, now called pulque. This drink, in turn, got its own god, Ome Tochtle ("Two Rabbit"), hence the rabbit above. Ome Tochtle was only one of the innumerable Centzontotochtin (rabbit gods of drunkenness) who each nursed at one of Mayahuel's 400 maguey "breasts." The Mexica used the number 400 to represent anything that was countless. Each of the rabbit gods represented one of the many foolish behaviors of drunkards. As a highly disciplined and militarized society, the Mexica felt they couldn't afford the social breakdowns associated with drunkenness. They were a very abstemious society and viewed the overindulgence in alcohol, especially in public, as a serious offense requiring serious punishment. They abhorred the drunkard's loss of control and aggressive and violent behavior. Only the elderly were allowed the privilege of drinking to excess, and then usually only on ritual occasions. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

Featherwork was a luxury item

Feather workers were among the most elite artisans of the Mexica Empire. Above, a group of them sort feathers and cut them to size while others attach them to skulls and head dresses according to the design shown them by the tall man standing over them, probably a master craftsman. Feather craftsmen were called amanteca and they were organized into guilds not unlike those of Europe's Middle Ages. Several of these guilds worked directly in the Emperor's palace, making head dresses and costumes for him to wear and to give as gifts to his noble supporters. Brilliantly colorful feathers from rare birds were among the most valuable commodities in Mesoamerica. The pochteca liked to trade in them because they were compact and extremely light, as well as very profitable. Feathers and feather-decorated items were regularly listed on the Emperor's tribute list, especially for tributary cities in the jungles of the hot country where the most colorful birds abounded. Within the households of the amanteca, the whole family participated in the enterprise, and the occupation was hereditary. Feather worker families all lived in the same neighborhoods called calpultin. The most famous of these was Amanthan, located in the great market center of  Tlatelloloco. Amanthan gave the amanteca their name. The feather workers had their own apprenticeship programs and neighborhood temples where they worshiped their patron god, Coyolinahual, whose animal representation was the coyote. Ironically, Mexica laws regulated who could wear the amantecas' beautiful creations, and the list did not include them. No doubt some kept special pieces for themselves, but they could never wear them in public. (Photo taken at the Palacio National)

A hand-held fan was a status symbol among rulers and their nobility. This fan is one of the few examples of Mexica feather work that has survived over the centuries. It was found in the Tlaloc temple atop the Templo Mayor. The bottom of the handle represents the head of a warrior ready for battle. Other important uses for feathers were headdresses, the most famous of which is the one Moctezuma II gave to Hernán Cortés. Such head dresses were meant to associate the person wearing it with the Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcoatl. Other headdresses were worn by military leaders so that their troops could identify them in the dust and confusion of battle. Feathers were also used to decorate the surfaces of shields in elaborate designs. They were glued onto a leather surface, the less valuable feathers first, then the more colorful (and expensive) ones on the outer surface. Additional feathers would be attached along the edge of the shield, to flutter impressively in the wind. A Mexica army in full regalia must have been gorgeous, as well as terrifying, to view. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)