Saturday, June 30, 2018

Zultépec-Tecoaque Part 3: The North and South Plazas

Temple of Mictlantecuhtli, God of Death and Ruler of the Underworld. The temple is located in the Plaza Superior Sur, directly south of the Plaza Principal (see Part 2 of this series). In this posting, I'll show you the temples, altars, and other structures of both the Plaza Superior Sur and the Plaza Inferior Norte. The names of these two plazas refer to their location in relation to the Plaza Principal. Both of them border it, with the Plaza Superior Sur to the south and slightly above it on the slope, while the Plaza Inferior Norte is to the north and slightly below.

Plaza Superior Sur

Map of Plaza Superior Sur. The top of the map is oriented to the north. Just The God of Death's temple is in the upper left. It has three chambers, with a fire pit in the innermost section. Below it, and slightly to the left, is a single structure that is, in reality, three separate altars. In the center of the site map is a large square structure which may either be an altar or the base of a small temple. To the right is the Temple of Tlaloc, the Rain God.

Mictlantecuhtli's temple, viewed from the southwest. Carole is standing under the tree to the right, reading the explanatory sign. Mictlan means "The Place of Death", while Tecuhtli translates as "Lord". Hence, Mictlantecuhtli is the Lord of the Place of Death. Pre-hispanic people believed that the underworld had nine levels and heaven had thirteen. Your ultimate destination after death was determined not by the way in which you lived, but by how you died. For example, warriors who died in battle and women who died in childbirth both went to the House of the Sun, a place of great honor. The agony of giving birth was equated with the agony of a battle death. Interestingly, traders who perished while traveling on business also went to the House of the Sun, thus showing the importance of trade to pre-hispanic societies.

How the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli would have appeared. It was a one-story structure with a thatched roof and a broad staircase containing four steps and a short ramp just to the right of center. The God of Death had a wife named Mictecacihuatl, whose job was to tear the flesh off the bones of recent arrivals to Mictlan. The God and Goddess of Death dwelt in the ninth level of Mictlan, its lowest and darkest level. They are another example of the pre-hispanic belief in the duality of all things. Pre-hispanic people also believedthat the stars were swallowed by Mictlantecuhtli at the break of each day. Stars were not all that was swallowed. Some of the ceremonies in and around the temples of the God of Death involved ritual cannibalism .

Stone sculpture of Mictlantecuhtli. He is always portrayed with a fleshless skull containing large teeth. Sometimes the skull stands alone, but other times he is shown with a full body. When Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent) and Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror) defeated the Earth Monster and created our current world, they assigned the underworld to Mictlantecuhtli and his wife. Later, when Quetzalcoatl sought to populate the new world, he needed working materials. However, when he asked the God of Death for the bones of the gods of previous worlds, Mictlantecuhtli refused. Not deterred, Quetzalcoatl stole the necessary bones from Mictlan, and raced for the exit. However, the God of Death created a pit as a trap. Quetzalcoatl fell into it, breaking the bones into different sized pieces. Although he ultimately escaped with the shattered bones, the result was the creation of people in various sizes.

The three altars. As mentioned previously, these altars are shown on the site map as one structure. Why are there three? What ceremonies were performed on each?, What gods were honored? All this remains a mystery to me, because the altars lacked an explanatory sign.

The large central platform may have been either an altar or the base of a small temple. If there was a temple, it would likely have been constructed of perishable materials which have long since vanished. Once again, there was no explanatory sign.

Temple of Tlaloc. This structure is located on the east side of the Plaza Superior Sur, and faces west. This shows a relationship with the sun, as it both rises and sets. It also ties the temple to the planet Venus, a symbol of regeneration with which Tlaloc is closely associated. The Rain God was also the patron of agriculture and fertility. Worship of a rain or storm god is very ancient, harking back to the earliest days of plant cultivation. Similar to Mictlantecuhtli, Tlaloc had a female consort. Her name was Chalchiuhtlicue, Goddess of Lakes and Streams.

How Tlaloc's temple once looked. Like the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli, it is a one-level, thatched-roof structure that sits on a platform. The broad staircase is divided by two ramps. The temple has two rooms and the inner enclosure contains a fire pit.

The inner sanctum. The roof was supported by two pillars, the stumps of which can be seen on either side of a fire pit. Archeologists discovered offerings in the inner sanctum, including a blue vessel, decorated by black lines, along with fragments of hematite and sulphur. Both of these minerals are related to fire. Chemical analysis showed that they were quarried at Popocatepetlthe nearby volcano that is one of the most active in Mexico. In addition to these artifacts, archeologists also found sea urchin spines and two beads made from a seashell. The combination of artifacts relating to both fire and water is another example of the pre-hispanic concept of duality.

Funerary urn decorated with the face of Tlaloc. The Rain God is easily identified by his bulging eyes and drooping fangs. Like the God of Death, Tlaloc has a connection to the dead. The Rain God ruled over Tlalocan, a lush, green, watery paradise which was the destination of those who died from drowning, lightning, and certain diseases related to water. Tlaloc's paradise was not part of the underworld, but was the 9th of the 13 levels of heaven. There is  a wonderful mural of Tlalocan at Teotihuacán, painted six hundred years before the Acolhua people founded Zultépec. This religious continuity was the result of less sophisticated newcomers adopting the civilized ways of those they settled among. The Acolhua were originally Chichimec nomads from the northern deserts. They adopted many of the cultural practices they found among the remnants of the Toltec civilization that had fallen prior to their arrival in the Valley of Mexico. The Toltecs, in turn, had adopted much of the cultural remnants of Teotihuacan, after that great city had been in ruins for centuries.

Plaza Inferior Norte

Map of the Plaza Inferior Norte. Once again, the top of the map is oriented to the north, while the bottom abuts the Plaza Principal. At the top of this map is a long, narrow structure called the Ceremonial Platform of Fire. On the left side of the map, the large, rectangular structure is the Salon of the Nobles. The open area of the plaza, which covers the eastern 2/3 of the total area, was probably a place for large civic/religious ceremonies, such as the New Fire Ceremony.

The Ceremonial Platform of Fire viewed from its south west side. The platform above contains several small fire pits, called thetlecuiles, in which copal and other fragrant materials were burned. The rising smoke was intended to please Xiuhtecuhtli, the Fire God. Since Paleolithic times, fire had been an extremely important part of human life. Control of it was the first great step in the development of human civilization. Fire was used for cooking, warmth, tool-making, protection from predators, signaling, and--increasingly, over the millennia--for religious and other ceremonial purposes.

The original appearance of the Platform of Fire. The long, narrow, rectangular platform is divided down the middle by a half-wall and was once covered by a thatched roof. There were many ceremonies practiced here, but the most important was the New Fire Ceremony. This religious event occurred not only in Zultépec but throughout the Aztec Empire and the rest of Mesoamerica. Pre-hispanic people were close observers of the natural world. They noticed the cyclical nature of astronomical events and, most importantly, how these tied to the seasons for planting and harvesting. Their astronomer-priests developed calendars to record and track the movements of heavenly bodies. The Aztecs, along with many other civilizations, followed two calendars, a 365-day secular calendar and a parallel 260-day religious calendar. The Aztec New Fire Ceremony was celebrated every 52 years, when the two calendars coincided. The end of the 52-year cycle was believed to be a time when the gods might choose to destroy the world (as they had done four times previously). The New Fire Ceremony celebrated the survival of the world and its new 52-year lease on life.

The Platform of Fire, viewed from the east end. Thetlecuiles were found only on the side of the platform facing the plaza. Five days before the New Fire Ceremony, every hearth in the Aztec Empire was extinguished. People also destroyed their everyday household goods and dumped the remains into rubbish pits. All unnecessary activity was suspended during these five suspenseful days. On the night of the Ceremony, astronomer-priests climbed the hill known as Huixachtlan, located on a peninsula near the Aztec's island capital of Tenochtitlan. They watched anxiously until the constellation Pleiades passed its zenith. This event established that the sun would rise again and the world would continue. To commemorate the moment, they removed the living heart from a sacrifice victim and lit a fire inside his chest. These flames were used to ignite a bonfire on the hilltop, visible for many miles. The victim's body was then tossed into the fire. Representatives from all over the Empire attended this ritual. Each lit a torch from the bonfire and carried it back to his home city or town. When Zultépec's torch bearer returned, he ignited a bonfire at the Platform of Fire. The Plaza Inferior Norte was already packed with the people of Zultépec, each with their own unlit torch. At the Fire Platform, they their lit torches and carried them home to re-ignite their hearth fires of their households.. Thus the cycle was completed and the world was renewed for another 52 years, no doubt with sighs of relief all around.

Xuihtecuhtli, the Aztec God of Fire. He is thought to be an updated, Aztec version of Huehueteotl, the Old, Old Fire God, who had been revered for millennia. However, while Huehueteotl is always portrayed as a very old man carrying a brazier (fire tray) on his head, Xuihtecuhtli is young and carries no brazier. Turquoise was the symbolic equivalent of fire and the Fire God was believed to live in a turquoise room located in the center of the earth. The center position was considered to be the most important of the five cardinal points (the other four being north, south, east, and west). Consequently, the sacred hearth in each Aztec home or temple was in its center, where a permanent fire was kept burning. Aztec emperors considered Xuihtecuhtli to be their patron and, when they were enthroned, they were thought to embody him. Interestingly, Xuihtecuhtli was also the patron of the long-distance traders, called pochteca. This, once again, reaffirms the importance of trade and the status of traders in ancient Mesoamerica.

The Salon of the Nobles is located on the west end of the Plaza Inferior Norte. No one knows what the people of Zultépec called this structure. "Salon of Nobles" is an archeologist's label. However, the building's purpose seems clear. Local rulers, priests and nobles met here to discuss problems and make decisions. In addition, elite astronomers made observations here in order to inform the leadership of the will of the gods. The broad plaza in front of the staircase would have been suitable for large civic ceremonies. To understand the role played by the elite group who met here, it is important to understand Zultépec's relationship with Texcoco, the great city to which it owed allegiance.  

Artist's conception of the Salon of Nobles in the Post-Classic Era. It is a large, rectangular platform with a broad staircase in front. The balustrades on either side of the staircase show the Talud-tablero architectural style inherited from Teotihuacán. The thatched roof was supported by six large stone pillars. The Acolhua people who lived in Zultépec were tribally related to those in Texcoco and were part of the constellation of cities and towns controlled by it. These communities paid tribute to the ruling family of Texcoco, either in goods or services, or sometimes both. Zultépec was far enough away from Texcoco that its tribute was most likely in goods. Texcoco allowed some of the cities and towns to retain their own ruling dynasties. However, in Zultépec and some others, Texcoco appears to have appointed local governors. Although they were sent by Texcoco's ruler, these governors could not have functioned without the support and cooperation of the local priests, warriors, and noble landowners. It was in this context that Zultépec's elite met in the Salon of the Nobles. Through Texcoco, this trading town became closely connected to the wider Nahuatl-speaking world, because Texcoco was one of the three great city states that formed the Aztec Triple Alliance.

Map showing the relationship between Zultépec and its parent city Texcoco. Notice how Zultépec (far right on the map) is almost equidistant from Teotihuacán, its Classic Era parent city, and Texcoco, the city state for which it performed the same function as a trading outpost during the Post-Classic Era. The Aztec Triple Alliance was a coalition of three Nahuatl-speaking city states: TexcocoTenochtitlán, and Tlacopan. Each controlled groups of cities and towns through colonization, marriage alliances, or conquest. Zultépec was one of the cities founded by Texcoco colonists. The dominant partner of the Alliance was the Mexica kingdom, based in Tenochtitlan, an island city in the south central part of Lake Texcoco. The junior partner was Tlacopan, a city on the central eastern shore of the Lake.

A note about terminology: The word "Aztec" does not appear until at least colonial times. Some believe it was an invention of Alexander Humboldt, a 19th century European explorer. It is unlikely that the participants of the Triple Alliance would have used it. In this series, I use "Aztec Empire" to describe the Triple Alliance as a whole. I also use "Aztec" as a catchall term for aspects of culture common among the Alliance, rather than the way it is often used, as a name for the Mexica, the tribe with which it is usually associated.

Interior of the Salon of Nobles. Two rows of pillars supported the roof. Between them, toward the back, is a large square fire pit. It probably served ceremonial purposes, because one fire could not have provided enough light or heat for such a large room. Low stone benches run along the north and south sides, as well as the back wall. The structure in the center of the back wall appears to occupy a position of  importance.

The podium. This is clearly the most important spot in the Salon of Nobles. There is a direct line-of-sight from the entrance, down a passage created by the row of pillars. The large fire pit in the central area stands closer to this structure than to any of the other seating areas. This structure probably served as a seat for the ruler, or podium on which he could stand to address the room. It is also likely that the most important of the priests and warriors sat on the benches to his right and left.

Seating bench along the south wall of the Salon of Nobles. The fire pits spaced along the bench provided light, as well as heat. Similar pits appear along the north wall's bench. Among the artifacts found in these hearths were incense, feathers, and rubber balls. Those gathered here probably discussed problems in managing the city and in handling the trade that passed through it. Other issues most likely concerned upcoming festivals and ceremonies, support for Triple Alliance military campaigns and, of course, how to satisfy Texcoco's tribute requirements.

A meeting in the Salon probably looked something like this. The example above comes from one of the surviving codices created by Aztec scribes. It shows a meeting between Mexica ruler Moctezuma II and his nobles. Meetings in Zultépec's Salon would have borne some similarities to this image. Everyone would have been seated on reed mats. The meeting participants would have faced the ruler, who would sit at the head of the room, in a place of honor like the Salon's podium. The participants would have been attired cotton tilmas, colorfully decorated with the embroidered borders allowed only to the elite. In the codex image above, the small bubbles in front of the ruler's mouth indicate speech. In Nahuatl, the word for a ruler is tlatoani, meaning "one who speaks".

This completes Part 3 of my Zultépec-Tecoaque series. I hope you 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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