Sunday, August 21, 2016

Calixtlahuaca Part 1: Temple of the Wind God

Statue of Ehecatl, the Wind God, located in Calixtlahuaca's museum. Ehecatl is always portrayed wearing this odd beak-like attachment to his face. After leaving Valle de Bravo, it was less than an hour's drive to the site of Calixtlahuaca. The ancient site was once called Matlazinco by the Matlazinca tribe, whose capital it was before the Aztecs conquered the region in 1474 AD. The Aztecs' language was Nahuatl, and Calixtlahuaca means "house in the prairie". The town, which still carries the Aztec name, is today a small community located just off Highway 55, about 10 km (6.2 mi) north of the center of the city of Toluca, in the State of Mexico. Part of the pre-hispanic site is on flat ground,  surrounded by the town's modern buildings. However, most of the ancient structures--including the Temple of Ehecatl--are located high up on the lightly-wooded slopes of a small volcano named Cerro Tenismo.  For a Google satellite map, directions, and hours of operation, click here.

Temple of Ehecatl - exterior

Front view of Ehecatl's temple. After visiting an excellent (and free) museum at the base of Cerro Tenismo, we started up the slope to the temple. Part way up, we were met by an attendant who collected $50 pesos ($2.76 USD), which covered admittance to the whole site for both of us. In front of the temple is a flagstone patio, which leads to a grand staircase. The structure behind the staircase is circular, with a spiraling walkway that also leads to the top. On the left side of the staircase you can see a small entrance which allows access to the interior. The entire structure sits on a level platform, the size of a couple of football fields set end to end. The platform was carved from the side of the volcano and leveling it must have been a huge job. This is particularly true since pre-hispanic people lacked metal tools, draft animals, or vehicles to move the earth. The top of the temple provides a grand vista over the surrounding countryside.

The temple, as it was being unearthed in the 1930s. At the bottom of the staircase is a large cube-shaped structure with people on either side. This was the base for the statue of Ehecatl. Two smaller rectangular structures sit below the steps that lead to the grand staircase. It is not clear whether these were altars or possibly used as bases for two more statues. On the right of the photo, you can see the circular, stepped-platforms that make up the rear of the temple.

Cut-away model of the temple from the same angle as the previous photo. Like many other pre-hispanic temples and pyramids, Ehecatl's temple was built in stages. What we see today was the latest of four phases of construction. When modern engineers want to replace a building, they simply demolish it, haul away the debris, and put up something new. In ancient times, the effort, expense, and limited technology would have made this approach virtually impossible. Instead, pre-hispanic architects simply built a new structure over top of the old.

Temples to Ehecatl tended to follow the same general design. Above, you see four different temples from different geographic areas. The view is from directly overhead. The one at Calixtlahuaca is at the top left. The temple at Acozac is below it, and those at Huexotla and Zultepec are top right and bottom right, respectively. While we have not visited these last three yet, we have seen other temples to Ehecatl in distant parts of Mexico. These include the circular pyramids known as the Guachimontones, west of Guadalajara, and the spiral temple at Xochitécatl, north of Puebla.

View from the left rear. Here, you can clearly see the circular platforms and their spiraling walkway. In ancient times, the top level of the temple contained an additional cylindrical structure with a conical roof. However, this was made of perishable materials and did not survive the passage of the centuries. To the best of my knowledge, Ehecatl, whose name in Nahuatl means "wind", was the only pre-hispanic deity for whom circular temples or pyramids were constructed. Virtually all other sacred structures were built in a square or rectangular design with the four corners often aligned with the sacred cardinal points: north, south, east, and west. The wind, however, can come from any and all directions, so Ehecatl's temples were circular to reflect the variability of this natural force.

View of the right side of the temple. A series of small staircases lead up to a narrow entrance to the interior, seen in the center of the photo. There are several similar entrances around the base of the temple and on the spiral walkway, as you can see in the previous photo. Through these, priests could access the interior and conduct rituals kept secret from the mass of people who gathered around the temple during periodic public ceremonies.

Temple Interior

The front entrance on the left side of grand staircase. The bright overhead sun cast the interior into deep shadow, making me cautious as I descended. I didn't want to lose my footing or encounter any unseen critters. Neither occurred, however, and I moved unscathed through a series of dark stone corridors.

A narrow chimney leads up to daylight. At the end of one corridor, I suddenly stepped into a pool of light created by this vertical chimney. I say "chimney" but allowing smoke to escape was probably not its purpose. More likely, the shaft was for astronomical observations. I have found such chimneys in a number of other temples where Venus, or the moon, or the sun at a particular season could be viewed through the opening at the top. Using these observations, time cycles could be measured and predictions made for when to plant or harvest crops. A structure in the pre-hispanic Zapotec capital of Monte Alban contains a very similar shaft once used by ancient priests to observe Venus' movements.

A steep internal staircase leads up from the bowels of the temple to its top.  After conducting their observations and secret rituals, the religious leaders could proceed up these steps and suddenly emerge high above the waiting crowd. It must have been a dramatic moment, accompanied by thundering drums and the mournful wail of conch shells. The climb up this staircase looked pretty tricky, in that each step is only a few inches deep and the incline is very steep. Since there was a safer way to the top, I decided not to risk it.

Top of Temple 

A stone walkway spirals around the sides of the temple. Portions of it are now blocked, so it was impossible for me to reach the top using this route. Apparently the ancients used it as one route for ascending or descending the temple. A long procession of priests and other high officials, gorgeously adorned with feathered head dresses and jaguar skins, must have been quite a sight as it wound around the temple's circular walls during one of these great ceremonies. On the sides of the wall to the left, you can see several stone projections. In another area of Calixtlahuaca, and at other sites around Mexico, similar projections were used as supports for decorative elements. Beyond the walkway's outer wall, you can see one of several altars that surround the temple.

The flat top of the temple can be reached over this small footbridge. After climbing the grand staircase, I reached this footbridge spanning the spiral walkway. The view from the top encompasses the town and valley and the mountains in the distance. The temple's flat top once contained a cylindrical structure with a conical roof, constructed from perishable materials.

The interior staircase, viewed from the top. The small opening in the lower right is the entrance on the right side of the temple, seen in one of the previous photos. The shallow depth of each step can clearly be seen here. After completing their rituals, the priests would have ascended the staircase and come up within the perishable structure. They would then appear in its doorway to address the crowd below. It is my conjecture that they would have ascended, rather than descended. Based on my rock-climbing experience, it is nearly always easier and safer to ascend a steep, treacherous incline than to climb down it. After emerging at the top, they may have proceeded down the grand staircase, or by way of the spiral walkway, or possibly both at the same time.

Ehecatl and Quetzalcoatl

Full view of Ehecatl, located in the Calixtlahuaca museum. Ehecatl is closely connected to Tlaloc, the Rain God, because strong, spiraling winds often precede a downpour. Ehecatl wears the unusual beak to cut through any obstacle on his way to join Tlaloc. The Wind God is one of the most ancient deities of Mesoamerican cultures and civilizations. The temple dedicated to him at Xochitécatl dates back as far as 800 BC. Over the centuries, Ehecatl became associated with Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, another important and widely revered god. One possible connection between them was the snake symbolism the two deities shared. Among the later Mesoamerican civilizations, the Wind God is referred to as Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl. The Aztecs built a circular temple for the double-god in the Sacred Precinct in their capital of Tenochtitlán. According to the Aztec cosmology, the Sacred Precinct was located at the center of the world and only the most important among their plentiful array of gods were assigned space there.

Ehecatl's statue was unearthed near the left side of the grand staircase. His "beak" can be seen at the upper end of the trench above, shaped like the bottom of a clothing iron. The statue had once stood on the cube-shaped platform at the base of the grand staircase. The Aztecs destroyed the Matlazinca's capital in 1510 after a revolt by its inhabitants. The Matlazincas fled to the territory of the Aztec's great rival, the Tarascans, where they settled in the area of what is now modern Morelia. The Aztecs resettled the Matlazincas' former territory with their own people and then rebuilt the city as Calixtlahuaca. In the process, they completed the final phase of the Temple of Ehecatl, and added the statue you see above. A little more than ten years later, the Spanish cast down the statue and destroyed the temple during their Conquest. It was Spanish policy to destroy native religions by destroying their temples. Sometimes they used the rubble to build a churches on the same spot, but in the case of Ehecatl's temple, they simply left it in ruins.

Workers have extracted most of the dismembered statue and are still digging for broken pieces. In the 1930s, Mexican archaeologist José Garcia Payón began to excavate ancient Calixtlahuaca. In the process, he uncovered and restored Templo Ehecatl and the palace area at the base of Cerro Tenismo. His workers discovered the statue when they saw a lizard run between two rocks. Payón was not present when the discovery occurred, which greatly annoyed him. Between 1988 and 2007, a series of other archaeologists made further discoveries including a temple complex dedicated to Tlaloc, located near the top of the volcano. We'll take a look at the Tlaloc complex and the palace area in later parts of this series.

This small, unidentified statue appears to depict Ehecatl. The figure is seated on a stepped throne and wears the strange beak associated with the Wind God. A writhing snake forms part of his head dress. In addition to snakes, there is another similarity between Ehecatl and Quetzalcoatl. Both are "culture heroes" as well as gods. A culture hero is person of great--and sometimes magical--power who acts as a leader, but is not a god. A familiar example is Hercules in the mythology of the ancient Greeks. In another wrinkle, some archaeologists believe that the culture heroes Ehecatl and Quetzalcoatl, may reflect greatly embellished stories about actual historical figures. Gods? Culture heroes? Actual people? All at the same time? This can be a bit confusing when studying Mesoamerican myths and legends.

This stela, containing a snake emblem, stands in the patio near the base of the grand staircase. While most of the carving on the stela is badly worn, the coiled snake on the left is clearly visible. The coil may represent not only Ehecatl's snake manifestation, but the spiral of the temple itself, thus making the very architecture of the structure a metaphor for a snake. Just as Ehecatl was a very ancient god, so was Quetzalcoatl. Representations of the Feathered Serpent have been associated with the Olmecs (1500 BC - 400 BC), known as the "Mother of Cultures." Later, the great empire of Teotihuacan (100 BC - 650 AD) revered Quetzalcoatl, as did their successors, the Toltecs (700 AD - 1000 AD). Each of these great civilizations maintained extensive trade networks through which the cult of the Feathered Serpent spread.

This statue of a feathered snake shows a human head emerging from its gaping jaws. The statue, located in the Calixtlahuaca museum, presents an image that is found throughout Mesoamerica, even down into the Maya areas of Yucatan and Central America. Quetzalcoatl is associated with knowledge, culture, civilization, and the use of maiz (corn). The image of a human emerging from a snake's mouth represents the Feathered Serpent's role as the creator of human beings.

Temple Altars

This square altar can be found on the side of the temple that overlooks the town. It is not clear what was sacrificed on altars like this, but it could well have included human beings, particularly in the period of Aztec rule. Quetzalcoatl was said to disapprove of human sacrifice, Ehecatl's position on the matter is unclear. The Aztecs were cultural sponges, somewhat like the Romans, and avidly adopted the culture, and cosmology of the people they conquered. They mixed and matched to create their own culture and cosmology (and, for political purposes, deliberately fabricated a good deal of their official history).

A circular altar, set in a small sunken area adjacent to the temple. According to early Aztec legends, they originated on an island (possibly Mexicaltitan) from which they began a meandering, 200-year migration. Their journey finally ended in the Valley of Mexico where they settled on another island in a broad shallow lake called Texcoco. There, they built their capital, Tenochtitlán  (now Mexico City). During their journey, they came upon the crumbling ruins of Tula, the Toltec capital, and later the abandoned but still overpowering site of Teotihuacan. The magnificent remains of these half-forgotten civilizations had a tremendous impact on these primitive. nomadic people. The Aztecs called Teotihuacan "the place where the gods were born". Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery. The Aztecs adopted what they found, almost wholesale, including the worship of Quetzalcoatl.

Another sunken altar, near the edge of the great platform on which the temple stands. When the Aztecs encountered the extensive sculptures of Quetzalcoatl in the ruins of the ancient cities, they saw the similarities with Ehecatl. Over time, the Feathered Serpent came to predominate until Ehecatl lost his separate identity and became simply a facet, or manifestation, of Quetzalcoatl. When they conquered the Matlazinca capital, with its temple to Ehecatl, they simply subsumed him into their broader deity of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl.

This completes Part 1 of my series on Calixtlahuaca. In the next part, we'll explore the temple complex devoted to Tlaloc, the Rain God.  I hope you have enjoyed Part 1. If so, please leave any of your thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email them to me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Excellent survey of this important site Jim. I wonder how more imposing the ruins would be with their original painted stucco finish.


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