Sunday, July 6, 2014

Aguascalientes Part 6a: The unique National Museum of Death

Beautifully wrought Aztec Eagle Warrior, depicted as a skeleton in the Museum of Death. Although created by a modern artist, ancient Eagle Warriors would have appreciated the image. The House of Eagles, their headquarters next to the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), was adorned with life-sized skeleton figures. The Eagle Warriors were the most important among the elite warrior cults of the highly-militarized Aztec society. The warrior above wields the fearsome machuahuitl, the basic Aztec hand weapon. It was a long, narrow wooden paddle with grooves along each edge containing razor-sharp obsidian blades. Against any of the Aztecs' pre-hispanic opponents, the machuahuitl was deadly. Against Spanish steel armour, it was relatively ineffective. The statue is displayed in Aguascalientes' Museo Nacional del Muerte. This museum is unique in Mexico in its focus on the complex and interesting way that Mexican culture views death. The Mexican views are radically different from those generally held by folks from "north of the border".

Museo Nacional de la Muerte

The National Museum of Death occupies what was once a 17th Century Convent. The museum opened in 2007 and contains more than 2000 artifacts, ranging from pre-hispanic to modern. Aguascalientes has a long history associated with skulls and skeletons. It is the birthplace of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), creator of the famous catrinas, which have become wildly popular and are now found everywhere in Mexico. Catrinas are skeleton figures dressed in various costumes and portrayed in scenes of everyday life. The word comes from the Spanish term catrin, which refers to a dandy who imitates the lifestyles of the wealthy. In addition to Museo Nacional del Muerte's display of Posada's work, there is a separate museum in Aguascalientes devoted expressly to the work of this native son. Unfortunately we did not have time to visit the other museum.

The displays are contained in rooms surrounding this courtyard and its two-story atrium. Some of the walls behind the arched portales are covered with murals which I will show in a later posting. Posada became famous as a political cartoonist who satirically portrayed the affectations of Mexico's 19th Century nouveau riche. To do this, he drew skeletons wearing the latest European styles. Today, you can find catrinas shown as housewives, dentists, motorcyclists, golfers, and endless other  variations. I have even seen a catrina gynecologist examining a skeletal patient.

Death in the Pre-hispanic Era

A Colima Dog, found in a burial site of the Shaft Tomb Culture of Western Mexico. Ceramic dogs often appear in the burials of the Shaft Tomb Culture, especially in the area of Colima, Mexico. The culture gets its name from the unusual burial sites they created between 300 BC - 400 AD. These are found in a geographic area that follows a rough arc from Michoacan, up through Central Jalisco, and down to the coast of Nayarit. Shaft tombs were built with a vertical shaft as much as 20 m (65 ft) deep. At the bottom of the shaft, one or more bulb-like chambers were carved out of the soft volcanic soil. Bodies left in the chambers were sometimes arranged like the spokes of a wheel, with the feet at the hub. Large amounts of grave goods were buried with the bodies, and these are our primary source of information about the culture, since they typically did not build large above-ground structures such as pyramids or palaces. The grave goods often included several of the ceramic dogs, which are called Xoloitzcuintle. The nahuatl word is a reference to Xolotl, a dog-god who guards the dead and accompanies them on their journey through the nine levels of the underworld.

Teotihuacan skull inlaid with turquoise and obsidian. Teotihuacan was the greatest city of Mesoamerica, at least until the heyday of Tenochtitlan almost 1000 years later. The later cultures, including the Aztecs, held the ruins of Teotihuacan in awe, referring to them as the "Place where the gods were born." Between 100 BC and approximately 650 AD, Teotihuacan influence was pervasive in the area stretching between Guatemala and the Southwest United States. Turquoise, considered a sacred material, was mined in the Santa Fe, New Mexico area and traveled over long-distance trade routes to Teotihuacan. The ancient city was a multicultural capital, with neighbourhoods set aside for representatives of various groups, including the Zapotec kingdom of Monte Alban near present-day Oaxaca. The practice of decorating skulls with turquoise thus spread to the Zapotecs, and from them to the Mixtecs. After the Aztecs conquered the Mixtecs, they demanded skulls like this as tribute, and then adopted the practice themselves. While it is not clear what sacred purpose the Teotihuacans had in decorating skulls like this, the Aztecs used them in their worship of Tezcatlipoca, one of the most important gods in their pantheon. He represented (among many things) rulership, war, jaguars, the night sky, and hurricanes.

Tzompantli, or skull rack. These can be found widely in ancient sites, from Tollan, the capital of the Toltecs (north of Mexico City), to Chichen Itza, the great Maya city in northern Yucatan. Great copycats that they were, the Aztecs built a tzompantli next to the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan. Above you see a stone representation of the actual wooden racks on which hundreds of skulls were impaled on long horizontal poles. The tzompantlis in Tollan and Chichen Itza stand next to ball courts. The Mesoamerican Ball Game is strongly associated with human sacrifice. Aside from whatever religious significance the tzompantlis had, they were clearly intended to display power and achieve intimidation.

Mask of the Three Ages. This complex terracotta work by an Aztec artist portrays the three ages of life: youth, old age, and death/rebirth. Along with most Mesoamerican cultures, the Aztecs viewed the world--and life itself--as a succession of cycles. They believed that death is simply a transition point, a bit like Alice stepping through the Looking Glass. These ancient peoples closely observed nature and saw cyclical patterns in the seasons and in the movements of the heavens. They developed a complex system of mathematics in order to calibrate these changes accurately and thus predict the future. This had practical functions, such as determining the correct dates for planting and harvesting, as well as ritual and mystical purposes. The Maya developed the abstract concept of zero at a time when Europeans were still living in mud huts and wearing bear skins. Their long-count calendar system was so sophisticated that it could accurately specify a particular day millions of years in the past or future.

Zapotec funeral urn. This clay piece was unearthed in San Jose del Mogote, Oaxaca, and is from the late Pre-classic Era (400 BC - 100 AD). The elaborate head dress is typical of Zapotec sculpture. They left tombs in and around their mountaintop capital of Monte Alban that were filled with beautiful sculptures such as this, as well as exquisite jewelry. The Mixtecs, who later took over the area, often re-used the Zapotec tombs for their own burials. There is disagreement among archaeologists about whether the figures represent deities or actual rulers. There is also uncertainty about the function of the urns, since the Zapotecs didn't cremate their dead. Most have been found empty although one was full of bird bones.

Death and Cosmic Duality

Expressions of cosmic duality.  The Mexican culture is strongly influenced by the thousands of years in which sophisticated societies existed here prior to the Spanish arrival. One way in which this is expressed is the concept of duality. According to Ricardo Valenzuela Ruiz, "There is a ceaseless, cyclical oscillation of polar yet complementary opposites. Duality takes the form of an endless opposition of contrary yet mutually interdependent and mutually complementary polarities which divide, alternately dominate, and explain the diversity, movement, and momentary arrangement of the universe." The statues displayed above express this duality in a variety of ways, but primarily through the juxtaposition of life and death.

A partly skeletal baby with Olmec features. The forms in which duality appears are endless, but life and death are very common expressions. The concept of duality is of one of an integrated whole rather than two separate and independent halves. Life cannot exist except in its relation to eventual death. Similarly, the masculine and feminine are two parts of a whole and, when united in the act of sex, may actually create life in the process. The concept of wet cannot be understood without also understanding its duality of dry. The same is true with hot and cold, light and dark, etc. The halves of each duality are interdependent and complementary.

Duality is expressed here as a double-headed figure. Not only does the skull head share a body with the living one, but the living figure is female and the skull half is male, yet another duality. They share the same painted designs on their body, which expresses a unity.  The two halves of the dual figure jointly caress a serpent. Snakes have been very powerful symbols all the way back to the Olmecs, the earliest Mesoamerican civilisation. Snakes are often depicted with two heads in the ancient art, or with a human form emerging from the snake's mouth.

Half human skull, half jaguar, this sculpture is still another expression of duality. Like the snake, the jaguar is another powerful and very pervasive symbolic figure. It is the third largest of all big cats, behind only the African lion and the Indian tiger. The jaguar is a powerful and stealthy hunter that stalks its prey in the night. Its nocturnal behaviour was believed to give it a strong connection with the underworld. In fact, the jaguar was believed to pass freely between the worlds of life and death. It is no wonder that various Mesoamerican royalty and warrior cults wore jaguar masks and skins to emulate this extraordinary creature.

This completes Part 6a of my series on the Museo Nacional del Muerte. I will do two additional postings on the museum. In the next, we'll take a look at the humorous aspects of death, from the Mexican point of view, and see some startling examples of the skull as an object of art. The last museum post will show some of the work of José Guadalupe Posada, the creator of the famous skeleton figures called Catrinas.  I hope you will enjoy this series within my Aguascalientes series. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so either by emailing me directly or by leaving your remarks in the Comments section below.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Greetings,

    I really enjoyed looking over this blog, there's tons of information here. This is great!

    I did have a couple of questions though. In regards to the Mask of the Three Ages really, is that the correct name? Do you have any idea who the artist is? I'm really curious, I don't know why, but, that piece strikes me.

    What museum were you at when you took these photos? I may want to contact them for further information. This is a great blog! Thank you so much for sharing.


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