Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Zultépec-Tecoaque Part 2: The main plaza and its temples

The Temple of Ehecatl, God of the Wind, overlooks the Plaza Prinicpal. In Part 1 of this series, I showed you some of the fascinating artifacts recovered from the period when this site was a Teotihuacan trading outpost (300 AD-650 AD). All of the structures you will see in Part 2 were built by native people called the Acolhua. They re-populated the ruins of the Teotihuacán town around 1250 AD, after it had been abandoned for 600 years. In this and succeeding postings, I'll walk you through Acolhua era ruins, beginning with a tour of the Plaza Principal. The Plaza is bordered on the west by the Temple of Ehecatl and on the south by the Temple of Tezcatlipoca. These were two of the most important gods during the Post-Classic Era (900 AD-1521 AD).

I should also comment on the town's two names. Both Zultépec and Tecoaque are Nahuatl, the language of the AcolhuaThey, along with the Méxica (Aztecs) and the Tlaxcalteca, were part of the great Chichimec invasion which followed the collapse of the Toltec EmpireZultépec, which means "Hill of the Quails", was the name the Acolhua chose for their city. Tecoaque means "Place where they ate the lords or the gods". It was only after the Acolhua town was destroyed by the Spanish that its ruins were given that name. For the sake of simplicity, from here on I will just use the name Zultépec,

Site map of Zultépec-Tecoaque. The map is oriented with north at the top. Just right of center is the large circular structure called the Temple of Ehecatl. To the east of the temple, in the middle of the Plaza, is a small square structure known as the Tzompantli. There are also two small altars to the north and east of the Tzompantli. South of the Tzompantli is a large, square structure with a small, circular enclosure attached to its south side. That is the Temple of Tezcatlipoca. There are also two other plazas which we will look at in future postings. South of the Plaza Principal is the Plaza Superior Sur, which contains temples to Tlaloc, the Rain God, and Mictlantecuhtli, the God of Death. To the north of the Plaza Principal is the Plaza Inferior Norte, containing the Temple of Xiuhtecuhtli, the Fire God, and the elite council-house known as the Salón de los Nobles. Finally, in the map's northwest quadrant are two large residential complexes where most of the population once lived.

Temple of Ehecatl, the God of the Wind

Temple of Ehecatl, viewed from the left, or southeast side. The temple is circular with four concentric levels. The flat top once contained another circular structure with a thatched, conical roof. In front of the circular structure is a broad, rectangular porch containing the stumps of pillars that once supported a roof. The temples to Mesoamerica's numerous other gods are square or rectangular. Because the wind can come from any direction, Ehecatl's temples are always circular. Other examples of this can be seen at pre-hispanic sites such as Calixtlahuaca and  Xochitécatl.

How the Wind God's temple once appeared. The temple faces east, the direction from which both the sun and the star Venus rise. The position of the temple in the west end of the plaza also symbolizes the setting of these astronomical bodies. They are both extremely important in pre-hispanic cosmology because the cyclical nature of their disappearances and reappearances represent renewal, regeneration, and fertility.

Small stone statues of Ehecatl and his temple, found at Zultépec. The Wind God is usually portrayed wearing a mask resembling a bird's beak, through which he blew the wind that cleared the way for rain. This wind also symbolized human breath which, along with blood, was one of the two essences of life. The God of Wind was associated with several other gods, most importantly with Quetzalcoatl, the famed Plumed Serpent. The relationship was so close that he is often called Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl. The Wind God played a key role in the creation of the 5th World (our current universe), when the sun refused to move. Ehecatl stepped in and blew strongly to set the sun on its course. Because the rain is preceded by, and moves with, the wind, the God of the Wind was also partnered with Tlaloc, the Rain God. Finally, as Ehuecatl-Quetzalcoatl, he was the lover of Mayahuel, the Goddess of Maguey.

Almena recovered when the Temple of Ehecatl was excavated. Almenas are decorative elements placed in a line along the cornices of pre-hispanic buildings. They were usually covered in stucco and painted in bright colors.

Skeleton and maguey-shaped pulque cups recovered at Ehecatl's Temple. There was no sign in the museum indicating whether the person had been sacrificed, but the large, splintered hole in the side of the skull suggests a fatal blow. Mayahuel was a beautiful goddess who was hidden away in the clouds by her jealous grandmother, Tzitzímitl. Eventually, Mayahuel became very lonely and began to sing. Her alluring song attracted Ehecatl-Quezalcoatl, who helped her to escape. They made love in the sky and, in their passion, they fell to earth and became a maguey plant. Tzitzímitl discovered the plant when, angered by her granddaughter's escape, she followed the lovers. In her rage, she hacked the maguey to pieces, missing only one part, which Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl protected. His tears over the death of Mayahuel caused the maguey fragment to grow. The magnificent plant was found by the Acolhua people during their great migration from the north and it provided them with many useful products. The spines on the ends of its leaves became needles; the fibers were used for rope and sandals; and much of the plant was edible. Most importantly, they found that they could make pulque, an alcoholic drink, from the juice of the plant. Pulque was declared sacred and came to be used in many important ceremonies.

Temple of Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror God

The Temple of Tezcatlipoca shares the Plaza Principal with Ehecatl's Temple. It is situated on the south side of the Plaza and faces north, a direction with which Tezcatlipoca was closely associated. The proximity of his temple with that of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl is also significant. The relationship between the two gods is complex. In some creation myths, they are portrayed as great rivals, who each destroy one of the worlds created by the other. All of these worlds pre-date the creation of the 5th World, in which we currently live. However, in one of the many creation stories, the two gods cooperate to capture the Earth Monster, a giant crocodile who bites off Tezcatlipoca's foot in the struggle. The two gods use the body of the Earth Monster to create land, where before there was only sea. Because his foot ended up in the Earth Monster's stomach, Tezcatlipoca is usually portrayed with an obsidian mirror in place of the missing appendage. Often, smoke emanates from this mirror, giving him the name by which he is often known: "Smoking Mirror".

Tezcatlipoca, in full regalia, including his obsidian-mirror foot. Here, he actually wears several such mirrors. One is on his right foot and another, larger version, is suspended from his neck. A third is part of his head dress. His body is covered in black and his face is painted with two black stripes. The various mirrors that he wears are made from black obsidian. This color scheme refers to Tezcatlipoca's association with night and darkness. His totem animal is the jaguar, a powerful night hunter believed to be capable of moving freely between the world of the living and the dark underworld of the dead. Jaguars were also totems of royalty, power, and warfare, thus making Smoking Mirror a favorite of rulers. Thus those who worshipped Tezcatlipoca, by extension, worshipped their rulers.

How Tezcatlipoca's temple once appeared. The temple has a broad, 4-step staircase in front, leading up to a patio. On either side of the staircase is a balustrade with a sloping surface leading up to a vertical, rectangular surface. This architectural style is called talud y tablero and dates back at least to Teotihuacán, if not earlier. At the patio's far (south) end is a fire pit, which is situated directly in front of the narrow entrance to a circular stone room. The circular room was once topped by a thatched, conical roof. This was the inner sanctum, restricted to the priests of Tezcatlipoca.

The fire pit and the entrance to the circular inner sanctum. Like most of the important pre-hispanic gods, Tezcatlipoca was connected to the cycle of regeneration and fertility. As such, he was sometimes referred to as the "Giver of Life". Toxcatl, a ceremony held during the month of May, was the most important festival devoted to Smoking Mirror. During the previous May's ceremony, a handsome young man would be selected to impersonate Tezcatlipoca for the coming year. Usually, but not always, this was a captured enemy warrior. Over the following 12 months, he appeared as the god, dressed in finery and jade jewelry. People meeting him in the streets would worship him as if he really were Tezcatlipoca.

The inner sanctum contains two fire pits. During the last 20 days before the climax of the Toxcatl ceremony, the young "god" would be wed to four beautiful young girls who were themselves treated as goddesses. These last three weeks were filled with feasting, singing, and dancing. On the last day, the young man would climb the stairs of Tezcatlipoca's temple, to be greeted by the priests who led him into the inner sanctum.

Toxcatl sacrifice. In the inner sanctum, the young man would be seized and his beating heart carved out of his chest. After the sacrifice, the victim's body would be cooked and ritually consumed. Did he know what would happen to him at the end? Absolutely! The whole affair was considered by all, including the sacrifice victim, to be a great honor. I have not been able to determine the fate of the four young brides, but it is likely that they too were sacrificed.

The inner sanctum, seen from the rear, with Ehecatl's temple in the distance. The timing of the Toxcatl ceremony was significant. May is the end of dry season, and is followed by the seasonal rains which nourish the crops. The Toxcatl ceremony was therefore a celebration of the cycle of regeneration, upon which Mesoamerican civilization depended. The whole affair was intended to encourage Tezcatlipoca to fulfill his role as the "Giver of Life."

The Tzompantli and Other Plaza Features

The base of the Tzompantli is located in the middle of the Plaza. The Temple of Ehecatl stands in the background. If you were to draw a line from the center of Ehecatl's Temple toward the east, and another from the Temple of Tezcatlipoca toward the north, the point at which they would meet is this platform. Tzompantlis date back to the Toltecs (900 AD-1150 AD). They were a highly militarized civilization that dominated most of Mesoamerica, until they too declined and fell. The end of the Toltec Empire opened the way for invasion by the Acolhua and other fierce Chichimec tribes. These newcomers viewed the remains of the Toltec civilization with awe. They readily adopted key aspects of the its culture, including militarism and public displays of the results of human sacrifice.

Tzompantlis were racks used to publicly display the skulls of sacrifice victims. The skull racks had both religious and political purposes. Pre-hispanic people believed that many of their gods required human sacrifice and tzompantlis played a role in these rituals. However, they were also intended to overawe anyone--whether inhabitant or foreigner--who might consider challenging the ruling elite. The heads displayed were usually those of captured warriors, but not always. Sometimes they included women and even children, as was the case with some of the skulls at Zultépec.

This skull was at one time mounted on a tzompantli. Notice the large hole in the skull's left temple, through which the pole extended. During the Post-Classic Era, the use of tzompantlis became widespread in Mesoamerica. The Méxica (Aztecs) arrived in Central Mexico about the same time as the Acolhua, and later became their close allies. In their capital of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), the Méxica constructed an immense tzompantli platform and decorated it with carved stone skulls. Recently, archeologists digging around Tenochtitlán's Templo Mayor  uncovered a huge "skull tower" made up of more than 650 actual human skulls mortared together in circles. Another tzompantli can be found at Chichen Itza, a great Maya city in Yucatan with a strong but mysterious connection with the Toltecs.

View of Plaza Principal from atop the Temple of Ehecatl. In the foreground, you can see the stumps of some of the columns that supported the terrace in front of the temple. The tzompantli is in the center of the photo, with two altars to the north and east of it.

View of the Plaza Principal and the altar near its east end. Beyond the altar is the Plaza Inferior Norte with its Temple to the Fire God and Salon of the Nobles. We will visit this plaza and the one to the south of the Plaza Principal in my next posting.

This completes Part 2 of my Zultépec-Tecoaque series. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

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