Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Zihuatanejo Part 6: Ancient Xihuacán as a Ceremonial Center

Statue of Huehueteotl, the "Old, Old Fire God," was found at Xihuacán. Huehueteotl is shown in his typical posture: seated, with the hunched shoulders and face of an old man, and carrying a brazier (fire tray) on his head. Xihuacán is an important ancient site currently under archaeological excavation. It is located about 40 minutes south of Zihuatanejo (see Part 5 of this series). In the whole Costa Grande section of the modern State of Guerrero, Xihuacán was the most important ceremonial center. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence that the pre-hispanic people living in this area worshiped many of the gods revered in the rest of Mesoamerica. This is probably due to Xihuacán's role as a trade and cultural crossroads. Huehueteotl was well-named because he is one of the most ancient of Mesoamerica's well-populated pantheon, dating back at least to the Olmec period (1500 BC-400 BC). Control over fire was, of course, one of the earliest and most important of man's great technological developments, long pre-dating the arrival of humans to the Western Hemisphere. Fire provided warmth for the body, heat for cooking and preserving food, a way to illuminate the night, protection against predators, a way to signal others over long distances, and it could be used to manufacture tools and other products. Those were just the practical uses. Fire also came to play a central role in the many rituals and religious ceremonies of ancient times. It should be no surprise that ancient man would sanctify this critical force of nature at a very early date. In fact, along with water, earth, and wind, pre-hispanics considered fire to be one of the four primary and sacred elements of the universe. In February 2013, archeologists at Teotihuacan near Mexico City announced that they had unearthed a statue of Huehueteotl among the remains of a temple at the top of the famous Pyramid of the Sun, indicating that the great pyramid may have once been dedicated to his worship.

Religion, astronomy, mathematics, the study of time, agriculture, and political power were all closely related. Xihuacán priest-astronomers set up observatories atop three hills overlooking the ceremonial center of the city. As seen above, lines drawn from the top of each hill intersect at an altar immediately in front of the main pyramid. When the sun rises exactly over the top of the left-hand hill--Cerro La Agua (Water Mountain)--it marks the Spring Equinox. When it appears over Cerro del Tigre (Tiger Mountain) on the far right, the Winter Solstice has arrived. When it comes up over Cerro La Mira (Lookout Mountain), it has reached the axis between the other two. Armed with this knowledge, the priestly elite could predict when crops should be planted or harvested, as well as predicting other astronomical phenomena. Such knowledge resulted in great political power and enabled them to command the obedience of the populace. It was only through such obedience that Xihuacán's elites could mobilize the workforce to build the pyramids, temples and palaces that surround the plaza where the altar stands. Given that pre-hispanic people had no draft animals, no wheeled vehicles, and lacked metal tools until fairly late in the Post-Classic period, it was only through such mass mobilizations that these structures could be completed.

A clay sculpture of Tlaloc, the god of rain, shows he could use a good orthodontist. The sculpture, along with the body shown in the next photo, was found within the site of Xihuacán. Tlaloc was another of the most ancient Mesoamerican gods, and his worship paralleled the development of agricultural societies. These began during the Archaic Period (8,000 BC-2000 BC). As farmers began to understand the importance of rain and the disastrous consequences of its lack, they created a deity to whom they could appeal. In the typical duality of Mesoamerican religion, Tlaloc represented beneficial forces such as dependable and abundant rain, but also fearsome forces such as lightning and destructive hailstorms that could damage crops. He was thus a god that must be handled with great respect and care.

Tlaloc's body, from which the head had broken off. Notice the necklace with dangling jewels, which, in real life, might have been jade or shells. The figure wears an ankle-length garment on which are incised various designs. Tlaloc was one of the four sons of Ometeotl, the original god whose dual nature included both male and female aspects. The rain god was at first married to Xochiquetzal (flower bird), the goddess of youth, beauty, and sexuality. However, she was stolen away by one of his brothers, the devious Tezcatlipoca. Subsequently, Tlaloc married Chalchiuhtlicue who was the patroness of rivers and springs, a good match for his command over rain. Since providing regular seasonal rain was a big job, Tlaloc had four helpers called the Tlaloque. These were seen both as aspects of Tlaloc and as separate deities in their own right (if this sounds confusing, remember the Christian Trinity). The Tlaloque made rain by brewing it up in great clay vats in the mountains. Thunder and lightning occurred when they cracked the vats to release the rain. 

Our guide Eric explains the great stone disk discovered in the center of the ceremonial plaza. The disk played a role in the worship of Tlaltecuhtli, the earth goddess. Thus, representations of three of the four gods relating to the four sacred elements have been found at Xihuacán. The only one lacking is Ehecatl, the god of wind. However, major excavations were only begun in 2007, so he may yet turn up. The heavy stone is carved on its flat surface and also around its circumference. Its location in the center of the ceremonial area next to great ceremonial fire pits, and the carvings linking it to the priesthood, show that this was a very important artifact in ancient rituals. Tlaltecuhtli was believed to have originally been a great monster, and her name means "the one who gives and devours life." According to the Aztec version of her story, the gods Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent) and Tezcatlipoca (stealer of Tlaloc's wife) were attempting to create the very first of five versions of the world. The great monster Tlaltechuhtli repeatedly destroyed their work until they turned themselves into giant snakes, wrapped themselves around her legs, and broke her in two. The goddess' body became the earth, her hair the trees and flowers, and her eyes the caves and wells. She thus became the earth goddess with the power of creating whatever humans need. However, she also devoured the sun every evening and gave birth to it every morning, a cycle so important that human sacrifice was thought necessary to keep it going. 

This diagram of the Tlaltecuhtli disk expresses multiple religious concepts. The head of Tlaltecuhtli can be seen at the top, with goggle eyes and a long tongue draping from her mouth, giving her an appearance similar to Tlaloc. Surrounding her head are five points representing the star Venus, also closely related to TlalocThis similarity at first seemed to contradict the sign identifying the deity on the disk as Tlaltecuhtli. However, Eric insisted the sign was right and my further investigations proved him correct. The earth goddess has her arms raised and she sits in a squatting position that imitates the way many indigenous women give birth. Below the Venus symbol, in the center of the disk, are a series of concentric circles representing the sun. The placement of Venus above the sun represents an astronomical alignment that occurs every 8 years, no doubt triggering a major ceremony involving the stone disk. Venus was widely considered the symbol of death and rebirth, because of the cyclical nature in which the star appears. It was also believed that one of Venus' roles was to show the sun the proper way to move through its own cycle, much as the priest-astronomers showed the people the proper cycle of planting. Consequently, Venus was the special symbol of the priesthood and the stone disk reinforces the rulership of the priestly elites. Also, notice the snakes at the bottom of the disk near her feet, representing Quezalcoatl and Tezcalipoca, preparing to tear the great monster in two.

Small figures of Xihuacán priests provide a sense of how they appeared. Priestly elites emerged as the pre-hispanic societies became more specialized and stratified. Originally, they were simple farmers who, through close observation of the stars and natural physical cycles, developed an ability to predict important phenomena. Other members of the community turned to them for advice on when to plant crops, when the rains could be expected and other vital concerns. In the earliest times, these people were respected as shamans but possessed few advantages in economic or political status over the rest of the community. However, over the millennia, the people playing these roles accumulated vast and specialized knowledge from direct observation, from information passed down by their predecessors, and through trade relations and other contacts with outside cultures. Since knowledge was power, it was closely held and often cloaked in mysterious rituals. One of these rituals at Xihuacán involved the Ojos de dios (Eyes of God). These were shallow holes carved in the tops of boulders found on the summits of hills surrounding the growing settlement. Water was poured into the holes in order to refresh the gods and so encourage them to produce rain. Not coincidentally, the water-filled holes acted as mirrors in which astronomical phenomena could be isolated and observed. Information culled from these observations could be presented to the community as messages from the now-refreshed gods as to the likely timing of the rains.

This lidded stone jar was used in the rain ceremonies. The jar was found on a hill called the Cerro los Brujos (Hill of Witches). It was filled with small objects called chalchihuites, representing rain drops. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of these rituals, and of rain gods like Tlaloc. Failure of the rains to arrive at the proper time meant the failure of the crops. A long-term drought could lead to starvation and social collapse. The entire social structure was based on the belief that the intercession of the priestly elites was necessary to persuade the gods to do the right thing by their human worshipers. There are good arguments that the collapse of the great Teotihuacan Empire of Central Mexico in approximately 600 AD, and that of the Classic Era Maya city-states between 800-900 AD, were due to prolonged droughts. The lack of rain may have led to massive social unrest and the overthrow of the elites who had proved unable to assuage the anger of Tlaloc (or Chaac in the case of the Maya).

The green stone from which this priest figure was carved was associated with rain. The priest wears a necklace and earrings of circular disks which, in real life, would probably have been made from jade--another green stone. The priest wears a headdress decorated with a bird on the front, probably an eagle. In Mesoamerican societies, eagles were associated with power, war, and the sun. Over time, status and wealth flowed to shamans who possessed specialized knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, calendrical cycles, and how all these could be used to regulate the agricultural base of the economy. Shamans developed into priests, and priests into rulers. The pantheon of gods expanded, each having his or her own complex attributes and areas of influence. The rituals aimed at pleasing the various deities became elaborate ceremonies involving sacrifices, often of the human kind. The ability to compel such sacrifices arose parallel with the ability to compel the labor necessary to build pyramids, temples, and other great edifices where the ceremonies and sacrifices could be conducted.

Ceremonial sacrifice blades found at Xihuacán's ceremonial area. The one on the right appears to be made of obsidian, a volcanic glass that was very valuable to ancient people because of its capacity to produce an edge with a sharpness exceeding that of modern surgical instruments. Teotihuacan's early rise to power was due, in part, to its control over great deposits of obsidian. This was equivalent to a modern nation's possession of large oil deposits. Teotihuacan's skilled artisans created many valuable objects from the obsidian, which were then traded widely in Mesoamerica, and some of them no doubt ended up in Xihuacán. The other blades are probably chert or flint, two popular materials for creating sharp-edged tools and weapons. Since human sacrifice was one of the primary methods of propitiating TlalocHuehueteotlTlaltecuhtli and many of the other gods, these blades no doubt saw much hard service, particularly in dry times.

Anatomically correct phallae were used in rituals associated with power and fertility. Phallic cults developed in some Mesoamerican areas during times of turmoil and social disruption. They appear to have been a way for the priestly elites to reaffirm their authority. Their symbolic importance was also related to rain and agricultural fertility. Semen and blood were bodily fluids considered very important to the gods. Sometimes the rituals brought all this together. One common practice was self-sacrifice through the piercing of sensitive body parts, including the penis. This was done with various sharp instruments, including manta ray spines, which would have been readily available in the Costa Grande area. The resulting excruciating pain was thought helpful in bringing about a trance-like state in which the spirit world could be contacted in the form of visions. To my male readers: it is not recommended that you try this at home.

Archaeologists at Xihuacán have found many objects related to both female fertility and water. The objects in the lower left and upper right represent pregnant female figures, reclining on their backs. In ancient Mesoamerica, there was a very close symbolic association between females and water. Figures like these have often been found in caves (the source of springs) and wells. You will remember that these water sources were supposedly created from the earth goddess Tlaltechuhtli's eyes after she was torn apart by Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca when they formed the earth with parts of her body. Tlaltechuhtli was herself the ultimate female fertility symbol, since planting seeds in the earth produced the crops. Caves were also closely associated with the female vagina and with both death and rebirth. Additionally, Tlaloc's second wife Chalchiuhtlicue was the patroness of springs and land-based water sources. Another of the interesting objects shown above is what appears to be a small clay temple adorned with circular chalchihuites. These may represent rain drops similar to those found in the stone jar seen previously. 

A chubby little Xoloitzcuintli looks like he's about to wag is tail. The Xoloitzcuintli (show-low-is-queen-tlee) is a small hairless dog native to the New World. They were raised in many pre-hispanic communities as hunters, guardians, draft animals, companions and as a food source. Statues of the little dogs, in a wide variety of postures, have often been found in the burials of Western Mexico's Shaft Tomb Culture. This one must have arrived in Xihuacán through the trade networks. The Shaft Tomb culture was active between about 250 BC-400 AD, and is known primarily through the contents of its unusual tombs, which were built at the bottom of deep vertical shafts. Xoloitzcuintli have often been found in tombs of the Colima area, and have become commonly known as Colima Dogs. The statues represent Xolotl, a dog-like deity who was Quetzalcoatl's twin. Xolotl was closely associated with Venus and thus the cycle of death and rebirth. His main job was to guide the soul past the many terrors and obstacles of the underworld until it reached Mictlán, the ninth and lowest level. The families of the deceased made sure that the tomb contained and least one, and sometimes many Xoloitzcuintli to ensure there were no slip-ups in the journey.

This completes Part 6 of my series on Zihuatanejo. I hope you have enjoyed meeting a few of the most important deities of ancient Xihuacán and learning about this great Costa Grande ceremonial center. I always encourage feedback and questions, so if you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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