Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Archive for April, 2008

Danza Azteca — Solo Dance Of Tezcatlipoca

I’ve had a long day today and am very tired, too much running back and forth across the state, so today’s update will be a quick one. There will be a big new article coming soon though, I had plenty of time while sitting on the train to plan out a nice big feature on Aztec ethics and moral worldview. Watch for those two in the near future. In the meantime, I have another nice danza video for you to enjoy, courtesy of a YouTuber by the handle of Alexeix.

This particular video is a solo performance by a young danzante named Miguel Rivera. He’s performing the dance of Tezcatlipoca, the mercurial “Smoking Mirror.”

This particular video is interesting not because of elaborate costuming or intricate instrumentation, but because Señor Rivera is demonstrating the full sequence of dance steps and movements in great detail, and you can clearly hear the specific drum rhythm for Tezcatlipoca being played in the background. Thus, for those of you who are interested in learning some of the traditional dances and/or drum rhythms, his video should be a useful source of information.

Incidentally, if you listen, you’ll hear a rhythmic jingling sound that’s in time to his movements. It’s coming from the “bells” around his ankles. Those “bells” are actually a specific type of seed pod/nut shell that is native to Mexico. When dried out and sewn to leather or cloth wraps that are worn around the lower legs, they make that beautifully distinctive jingling sound. I’d tell you what they’re called, but I’m completely blanking on it at the moment. I’ll update this post with it when I remember. (UPDATE: they’re called ayoyotes.)  Anyway, you’ll hear that sound in practically every Aztec dance recording out there, and now you know what makes it.

There shouldn’t be an issue with this embedded video going dead like the Quetzalcoatl one did for a little while, since it doesn’t look like the person who uploaded it on YouTube is opposed to embedding. (You can visit their YouTube page for this video by clicking HERE.) If it does cut out, just post a comment and let me know so I can fix it.


Huitzilopochtli & The Battle of Coatepec

I’m in a storytelling mood again, so I think it’s time for the legend about Huitzilopochtli’s miraculous birth and His battle at Coatepec against Coyolxauhqui and the Centzon Huitznahua. My version of the tale follows the most common form quite closely, as there don’t seem to be many variants of this one that need to be dealt with. As a bonus, I included a photo of the famous Coyolxauhqui Stone that was located at the foot of Huitzilopochtli’s side of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan, a structure that retold this particular myth in stone.

The Battle Of Coatepec: Huitzilopochtli Defeats the Moon and Stars

As told by Cehualli

Long ago, before the foundations of Tenochtitlan were laid, the great goddess Coatlicue, “She With The Snake Skirt,” was living peacefully at Coatepec. One day, She was sweeping Her home as She always did, when a peculiar sight greeted her. A little ball of beautiful feathers was drifting down from the sky towards Her.

“What a lovely bunch of feathers!” Coatlicue said as She stopped Her sweeping to pick them up. “Perhaps they are a gift from another god. Either way, I will keep them.” She tucked them into Her clothes for safekeeping and resumed Her sweeping. Later, once She had finished sweeping, She reached for the feathers to take them and put them away, but they were gone. “Where are my beautiful feathers? Did I drop them?” She looked around for the feathers, but they were nowhere to be found.

Coatlicue suddenly stopped Her search and placed a hand against Her belly. “What’s this? I’m pregnant!” She wondered at this miracle. “The beautiful feathers have become a baby — how can this be?” Excited and amazed, She shared this incredible news with the other gods and godesses.

Coyoxauhqui, the Moon goddess, “She Who Wears The Golden Bells,” was not happy for Her mother. Later that night, She gathered Her brothers, the Cenzton Huitznahua, the Four Hundred Southern Stars. “Our mother has no sense of shame! She’s pregnant, and who is the father? We don’t know! She claims it’s a miracle, but I don’t believe Her. No, She’s let Herself be overcome by lust and is acting like a common whore. We’re going to have to kill Her to remove the stain of shame from Our family. Who’s with Me?” she cried out, raising Her shield and shaking Her warrior’s bells.

The Four Hundred Southern Stars all shouted back to Her in agreement. “We’re all with You! For Her disgusting behavior, We will help You kill Our mother!” Then they all began to prepare for war. All of them except one, that is. A single Star, Cuahuitlicac, crept away from the secret meeting and ran for Coatepec.

“Mother!” he cried out. “Mother, your daughter and sons are planning to kill You!”

Coatlicue wept in terror and heartache at the news. “So I will be murdered at the hands of my own children, even though I’m innocent of any immorality!”

Then a strange voice was heard. “Don’t be afraid, Mother. I won’t let Them lay a hand on You. I’m here, and will protect You, no matter what the danger.” It was Coatlicue’s unborn son, Huitzilopochtli, speaking to Her from within Her womb. Cuahuitlicac and his mother were amazed. “I’ve already got a plan for dealing with these murderous kinslayers. Just tell Me when the army gets to the top of Coatepec, and I’ll do the rest.”

So, Coatlicue waited with trepidation in Her home atop Snake Mountain as the only loyal Southern Star watched Coyolxauhqui’s army march slowly towards Them. Even from his vantage point on the peak, he could hear the terrifying war-shouts, jingling of bells, and clashing of spears against shields. Coyolxauhqui marched Her army higher and higher up the slopes, calling out “Coatlicue! Prepare to die for your shameful deeds! We come to avenge Our family’s honor!”

At that time, Cuahuitlicac called out to Huitzilopochtli, “They’re here! And Coyolxauhqui Herself is leading them!”

In an instant, Huitzilopochtli was born. In the blink of an eye, He was a full-grown man, painted for war in blue and yellow. He straightened His warrior’s array and picked up His shield and darts. “See, Mother? I am here to protect you!” He took up His xiuhcoatl, the Fire Serpent, a blazing thunderbolt that flared to life in His hand, and with an echoing shout He raced like a comet towards the very startled Coyolxauhqui. They fought like two fierce jaguars, but in the end, Huitzilopochtli struck off the Moon goddess’s head and threw Her lifeless body tumbling down the side of Coatepec. Some say that He then threw Her severed head into the sky, where it still is to this day as the moon, Her golden bells shining in the night.

Before the Cenzton Huitznahua could react, He was in their midst like a raging fire.

They fought back, but nothing they did could drive Him away. They tried to frighten Him, but He just kept attacking. Finally, the Southern Stars pleaded with Him to spare them. “No!” Huitzilopochtli snarled. “You will all die for betraying your mother so cruelly!” The enraged god chased them, killing them mercilessly. Only a very few Stars escaped to hide in the farthest reaches of the southern sky.

With the army crushed, Huitzilopochtli proudly walked the battlefield and picked up the regalia of one of the Stars. He took it as a trophy, wearing part of it as His own and absorbing the might of the Stars. This great battle at Coatepec was the Hummingbird On The Left’s first victory, His first steps on the long road through the maelstrom of war that would ultimately take Him and His chosen people to Tenochtitlan.

*****

The Coyolxauhqui Stone

The Coyolxauhqui Stone

Photo taken by Thelmadatter & generously placed into the public domain


A Brief Survey Of Historical Aztec Autosacrifice

Today I’m going to give a quick overview of the types of autosacrifice performed by the Aztecs during the days of the Empire in order shed some additional light on this very important religious practice.

Traditionally, the Aztecs would collect blood from their ears, lower legs (calf, shin, or just above the ankle), lip, tongue, or penis. The tools and methods used would vary depending on the worshipper’s preferences, the ritual context, and in at least some cases, the instruction of a priest.  The Florentine Codex records the rite of confession to Tlazolteotl, and according to Sahagun, the confessor priest would prescribe required penances to atone for the disclosed sins — these penances often included various forms of bloodletting.

The most common methods of getting the blood were by pricking the flesh with a sharp instrument. Maguey (agave) spines are the tool most frequently mentioned in the historical texts, though slivers of obsidian and special perforators made from a spike-shaped piece of sharpened bone were also used. (Incidentally, Quetzalcoatl, the First Priest, is often shown in the codices holding a bone perforator or two.) From what I’ve read, it seems that maguey spines were particularly associated with piercing the ears and the legs, probably because their large size would be sufficient to draw blood from the legs. The individual would pierce himself or herself in the chosen location, and once the thorns were sufficiently bloodied, would carefully arrange them on a bed of cut fir boughs, or stick them into a ball of dried grass.

Alternatively, the Aztecs would nick their earlobes with an obsidian knife, and the blood would be allowed to drip on the ground, be sprinkled into a fire, or flicked towards the sun, symbolically giving the life-energy to Tonatiuh.

Finally, there was a final type of personal blood offering, that of passing straws or cords through the body. This rather severe form of autosacrifice was a multi-step process. The person would first select a place to pierce. In the texts I’ve read, the tongue seems to be the most common choice for this kind, though the ears, legs, and possibly penis were used as well. (I haven’t the slightest idea of how that last one worked, it’s definitely not something the Spanish friars would’ve recorded the details of!) Then they would poke a hole with a sharp sliver of obsidian, and pull a number of straws or thin cords through the hole. This sacrifice was typically done in a temple or at the side of the road. Wherever it was done, the bloodied straws were left behind as offerings. Interestingly, this practice was apparently only done on days that had a proper sign according to the ritual calendar (tonalpohualli), but I’ve never come across what daysigns those were. Finally, this practice of drawing straws is usually listed as a priestly activity, not something done by ordinary people, though occasionally the nobility appear to have done it as well. Priests who did this often were obvious, as their tongues would be extremely scarred, damaged to the point where they were said to have had difficulty in speaking.

Quetzalcoatl Holding Bone Perforators, Codex Borgia


Danza Azteca — Quetzalcoatl’s Descent to Mictlan

Here’s the video of the Aztec dance performance of part of the story of Quetzalcoatl’s descent to Mictlan, the Land of the Dead, to retrieve the precious bones so that humans can live again. It’s a nighttime performance, which is a perfect fit for the setting. Mictlan was described as a place of perpetual darkness, coldness, and night. The lighting is mostly from the bonfire and a few lamps, so it’s very moody looking and the shadows and light accentuate the motions and costumes of the danzantes.

Update 4/21/2008:

Go HERE to watch the dance, as YouTube seems to have yanked the plug on embedding this particular video.

Quetzalcoatl is portrayed by the dancer in the birdlike, beaked mask who’s carrying the serpent, while Mictlantecuhtli is played by the dancer with the lion’s-mane-like headdress with a skull in the center of the fan of feathers. Mictlantecuhtli’s servants are creatively portrayed by children in skeletal costumes. You’re probably wondering “Why kids? That’s not scary!” I think they’re echoing the myths that portray Tlaloc’s helpers, the Tlaloque, as miniature versions of the goggle-eyed Rain God. If Tlaloc’s assistants are mini-Tlalocs, then why not have the Lord of the Dead’s be miniature Mictlantecuhtlis? Either way, it’s a nice casting choice.


Quetzalcoatl’s Descent To Mictlan, the Land of the Dead

A change of pace for today, because I’m in a storytelling mood and I even found a kickass danza video to go with it.  Today I’ll tell the legend of how Quetzalcoatl brought humanity back to life by stealing the precious bones from the Lord of the Land of the Dead, Mictlantecuhtli.

This version of the “Quetzalcoatl goes to Mictlan” tale is a composite of the several different variants of the myth that exist, and the wording of it is completely my own. I fleshed it out a bit in order to try to restore some of the richness and “naturalness” that gets lost when you try to take an oral tradition that was typically performed with song and dance and try to move it to the written page, especially if you have to translate it to boot.

As a bonus, I found a danza video showing a beautiful dance rendition of the story! I’m going to put that in its own post so the formatting doesn’t get all awkward. So, let’s get started!

Quetzalcoatl’s Descent To Mictlan

As told by Cehualli

It was the beginning of the Fifth Sun. Newborn Tonatiuh shone His light over the earth below. His rays revealed the beauty of the recreated land and sea, yet the gods were unhappy with what They saw. Why? The world was empty of life.

The gods gathered to share Their sorrow at the absence of Their creatures. “We’ve brought the earth and sky back together and made them whole again, but what good is it all without anyone to live there? Who will worship Us? We can’t let things go on like this!”

But the humans were all dead, killed when the Fourth Sun fell in a torrent of rain. And the dead were far away, hidden deep in Mictlan, the Land of the Dead. Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl, the Lord and Lady of that cold, dark, silent realm, now kept their bones as treasures. Without the bones, there could be no more humans.

The Teteo continued, “We must give life back to the humans, our faithful servants who We first created long ago. But We need their bones to recreate them, and they are lost in Mictlan. Someone must go down to the Land of the Dead and persuade Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl to give them back to Us. But who among Us is best suited for this dangerous quest?”

After a few moments of deliberation, Quetzalcoatl and His twin, Xolotl, nodded to each other and stepped forward. Xolotl, the god with the serious face of a great hound, said, “I am Xolotl, the Evening Star. Every night, I lead the Sun down to Mictlan to die. I know the way to the Land of the Dead and will guide us there.”

Quetzalcoatl, His wise old face wreathed with a beard of brilliant feathers, said, “I am Quetzalcoatl, the Morning Star. Every morning, I lead the Sun back out of Mictlan to be reborn with the dawn. I know the way out of the Land of the Dead and will guide us back home to sweet Tamoanchan.”

The rest of the gods heard Their brave words and thought the plan wise. Tezcatlipoca said, “Though We may fight and compete for glory, Brother Quetzalcoatl, I too want to see the humans brought back from Mictlan. May You succeed in bringing back the bones.”

With that said, Xolotl and Quetzalcoatl set out from Tamoanchan, descending towards the Land of the Dead. The other gods watched Them go with great concern, for They knew that Mictlantecuhtli was a proud and cunning king who wouldn’t give up the bones willingly. They gathered around Tezcatlipoca’s smoking mirror, a device of wonderful power through which the god could see everything, to watch the progress of the twins and wait.

Xolotl led the way down to Mictlan and through the nine layers of the Realm of Death. They retraced the path that the Sun took every night down into the depths of the underworld, all the way to the palace of the Lord of the Dead. “We must be careful,” Quetzalcoatl said. “I know Mictlantecuhtli will not be pleased by Our request. He is a wily god and may try to trap Us.” Xolotl agreed, and They cautiously proceeded to the throne of the Lord and Lady of the Dead.

Mictlantecuhtli was waiting for Them. “Welcome to My kingdom, gods from the bright realm of Tamoanchan. What brings You so far from your home?” Scattered around the royal chamber were heaps of the bones of the humans, piled up like treasure.

Quetzalcoatl spoke respectfully, one god to another. “We have come for the precious bones of the humans. We have need of them in Tamoanchan.”

Mictlantecuhtli eyed the two gods. “And why do You need my lovely bones? It must be very important if You came all the way to the Land of the Dead.” Already He seemed to be planning something.

Quetzalcoatl replied, “The Fifth Sun has dawned, and it’s time for humans to walk the earth and bask in His rays again. We need those bones so we may bring them back to life.”

Mictlantecuhtli frowned, and the chill in the air deepened. “And how do I benefit from this? No, I don’t think I’ll give up my splendid bones. If I give them to You, I’ll never get them back and I’ll be poorer for it. No, You can’t have My bones.”

Quetzalcoatl had anticipated this. “Oh, no! You misunderstand Me. We don’t intend to keep the bones, We just want to borrow them. The humans would be mortal, and would eventually return to You, just like how everything else is born and eventually dies, even the Sun itself. Only we Teteo live forever. You wouldn’t really lose anything in the end, and in the meantime, Your fame would grow.”

Mictlancihuatl looked pleased by these words. Mictlantecuhtli considered them, then spoke. “Hmmm. An interesting idea. All right. You can have the bones…” Xolotl began to move towards the bones. “IF” continued Mictlantecuhtli. Xolotl froze. “IF You can play My conch-shell trumpet and circle My kingdom four times in honor of Me.”

“Of course,” said Quetzalcoatl. Mictlantecuhtli gave Them His trumpet and watched Them leave His throne room. He smiled, satisfied that He wouldn’t have to give up those bones after all…

Xolotl looked at the trumpet in dismay. The conch shell had no holes and couldn’t make a sound. “He’s trying to trick Us!”

“I’ve got a plan,” said Quetzalcoatl. And He called the worms and other gnawing insects, and ordered them to chew holes into the conch shell. Then He took the shell and held it up, and summoned the bees to climb inside through the holes and buzz loudly. The sound echoed through the shadowy realm like a trumpet blast.

Mictlantecuhtli hid a scowl when Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl marched proudly back into the throne room. “We’ve done what You asked, Lord of the Dead. Now, give Us the bones as You agreed!”

“Very well then,” said Mictlantecuhtli, calm again. “You can have them for now. But the humans will not be immortal. They must die again someday and return to me, just as You had said earlier.” The Morning and Evening Star agreed, gathered up the bones, and left.

Mictlancihuatl looked horrified. “Our treasure! We can’t let Them carry it off!”

“Of course We won’t. I may have said They could have the bones. I never said They could leave My kingdom with them.” And then He ordered some of his servants to dig a pit along the path that the two gods must take to escape, and others to chase after Them.

Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl saw the army of the Lord and Lady of the Dead in hot pursuit, and ran as fast as They could, up towards the way out of Mictlan. Looking back at the mob chasing them, They didn’t see the pit ahead.

Suddenly, a flock of quail burst out of hiding, surrounding the two gods and startling Them. Quetzalcoatl slipped and fell into the pit, then Xolotl heard a sickening crunch of breaking bone. “What happened?” cried Xolotl, running over to help.

Quetzalcoatl was looking in horror at the bones. They had shattered into pieces, and some of the quail were gnawing on them. He chased away the quail and sifted through the bones, weeping. “They’re ruined! Now what will We do?”

Xolotl said, “Maybe they will still work, and We can still make this turn out for the best. It’s the only thing We can do now.” And He helped Quetzalcoatl gather up the broken bones in a bundle and escape with them.

They got back to Tamoanchan and showed the rest of the Teteo the ruined bones. Cihuacoatl looked at the pieces thoughtfully, then smiled. “We can still bring the humans back to life.” Then She took the shattered bones and ground them up like corn in a clay bowl, turning them into a fine powder. Then Quetzalcoatl bled His penis into the bowl, and the rest of the gods also gave blood. The blood mixed with the ground bones, and immediately living humans formed.

The gods rejoiced. “We’ve succeeded, the macehuales (literally, “those gained by divine sacrifice”) are born! The earth will be filled with humans once again. They will worship Us, and We will be their gods.”

And that is the story of how Quetzalcoatl went to Mictlan and brought back the precious bones so that humans could be reborn into the age of the Fifth Sun.


Update: Five New Hymns in “Hymns & Prayers”

I’ve been busy over the past several days scouring the Web for English translations of more hymns, especially more modern ones than the public domain Rig Veda Americanus that you can download. And I’ve had some good luck with this, amazingly enough. There are now hymns to the Sun, Huitzilopochtli, Xipe Totec, Cihuacoatl, and Chicomecoatl that you can read! I recommend swinging by the Hymns & Prayers page to see the new songs. Please note that they’ve visible via Google Book Search’s Limited Preview function, and follow the special orange-highlighted instructions in each entry on how to pull up those specific pages that have the songs. I’ve found another source of a truckload more hymns that I’ll be adding in the next few days, but I’ve got to get the complete list of desired pages for that one hashed out before I can add it. So… watch for another Update notice when that one goes up.

In other update news, I straightened out some links and added some new ones over in the History sections. I also finished off Huitzilopochtli’s little page in the section of The Gods, including adding a snapshot of Him as depicted in the Codex Borbonicus.

Oh, and I also found a real gem — a public domain PDF of the commentary on the Codex Fejéváry-Mayer by significant Mesoamericanist Dr. Eduard Seler. It’s even in English, too! That’s over in the Codices subsection of Sacred Texts.

So if you haven’t browsed through the static pages of this blog in a few days, you might want to swing by and check out the new stuff!


Danza Azteca — An Aztec Fire Dance

Got an important meeting tomorrow, so I can’t write a long post at this moment, but I do have a little something cool to make up for it. I love to hunt down videos of traditional Mesoamerican dance (danza Azteca, danza Chichimeca, etc.). I found a particularly good one on YouTube not long ago, and I thought I’d share it. It’s an Aztec dance that honors Xiuhtecuhtli, the Lord of Fire.

By the way, take a close look at the brazier that the lead danzante is dancing around — it’s in the shape of Huehueteotl the “Old, Old God,” the elderly guise of Xiuhtecuhtli. That’s an ancient style of making a brazier, and an appropriate choice — after all, part of Huehueteotl’s regalia is a brazier perched atop his head!