Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Daily Priestly Offerings Of Incense

I feel like talking about the ritual of offering copal incense today. More specifically, I’d like to go into more detail about how the tlamacazqui (priests) used to offer incense each day during the height of the Aztec Empire.

Copal was burned for the Teteo almost constantly in the temples. Sahagun records in Book 2 of the Florentine Codex that the priests would offer incense nine times each day. Four of these times fell during the day, five came at night. The four during the day were when then sun first appeared, at breakfast, at noon, and when the sun was setting. The five times at night were when the sun had fully set, at bedtime, when the conch shell trumpets were blown, at midnight, and shortly before dawn.

Sadly, we don’t have exact clock times for these nine offerings. Granted, some of them, such as the offerings at sunrise and sunset, would’ve drifted with the change in light levels as the seasons passed, while those like noon and midnight would’ve been fixed. The Spanish commentary in Book 7 of the Florentine Codex does state that one of the nighttime offerings was at 10PM. My guess is that one would’ve been either the one that coincided with bedtime or the blowing of the trumpets, as it had to be one of them between sunset and midnight. I would also bet that the offering at full dark is the one where the prayer to greet the night I discussed earlier took place. This would’ve been when the Fire Drill constellation rose into the sky.

Incidentally, it seems that the midnight incense offering was the most important of the nine. Sahagun specifically points out in some places that every priest was to wake at midnight and join in the offering of incense and blood via autosacrifice. This ritual was so important that the most trustworthy of the young priests were given the duty of holding vigil at night and waking their colleagues for this ceremony. Not only that, but those who failed to wake up and join in were punished severely, frequently by additional bloodletting or by a beating. The Aztec priesthood took its duties very seriously, and lapses in function were dealt with harshly.

Furthermore, many of the huehuetlatolli (“ancient words,” or moral discourses) recorded in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex make reference to the midnight offering of incense. The especially devout people, the “friends of Tezcatlipoca,” were dutiful in their observance of this celebration. They’re described as scorning sleep to rise and worship, sighing with longing for the presence of the god and crying out to Him. Judging by these references, it appears that the midnight incense offering was also important to the general nobility as well. Not too surprising, I suppose, as most of the nobility were educated in the calmecac school, the same school that trained the young priests. In a sense, every nobleman did a stint in seminary, though not everyone went on to become professional tlamacazqui.

The incense burner typically used by the priests was ladle-shaped and made of fired clay. The long handle was hollow and filled with pebbles, so it would rattle as the priest would move about. The handle was frequently sculpted to look like a snake, an animal commonly appearing in depictions of sacred things and beings. The hot coals and copal resin would go into the spoon-like cup on the end.

Who exactly received these nine offerings of incense is currently unknown to me. At many points in the Florentine Codex, where an incense offering is described in detail, the Four Directions are noted as receiving the sweet scent and smoke, in addition to any other deities being specifically addressed. Thus, the ladle would be raised to each direction, the prayers of the priest accompanied by the rattling of the stones in the handle. Sahagun notes that some of the nighttime offerings were directed to Yohualtecuhtli, the Lord of Night, and the dawn offering went to Tonatiuh, the Sun. The midnight offering typically shows up in the context of prayers to Tezcatlipoca, at least in the huehuetlatolli I have access to.

A Priest Offers Incense At A Temple, Plate 27 Of The Codex Fejéváry-Mayer

A Priest Offers Incense At A Temple, Plate 27 Of The Codex Fejéváry-Mayer

4 responses

  1. Xuchilpaba

    It’s not just that Nobles ended up at calmecac usually, but also that Tez is the god of nobles. SO my hypothesis would be that if you want to stay a noble you do your best to appease and please Tezcatlipoca. 😛

    October 16, 2008 at 11:55 PM

  2. cehualli

    That’s correct, there are also references to promising young children from the non-noble classes making it into the calmecac. There was definitely some social mobility in Aztec society, though it wasn’t necessarily easy.

    Hehe and yeah, there are plenty of warnings in the traditional prayers, especially those relating to the installation of a ruler, reminding the nobles to avoid hubris. They contain plenty of reminders that their good life is the “sweetness and riches” of Tezcatlipoca, and He can take them away if He gets disgusted with your behavior. The wording describes such blessings as not actually belonging to the person but merely “passed before” them as if in a dream. It’s like a glimpse of godhood that’s gone like the morning dew.

    October 21, 2008 at 1:33 AM

  3. Xuchilpaba

    I wish you could have read our convos are Black and Red about a year ago about Calmecac and social class with the Aztecs.

    P.s. this was back when Mahkagari was still posting. But it was a great convo nonetheless.

    October 22, 2008 at 11:32 PM

  4. cehualli

    Actually, I think I may have been around at that point. I lurked through late August and into early September until the group went members-only, then I joined Oct 3rd, about 2 weeks later. (I just couldn’t stay away…) I think I recall that one, at least parts of it. Might need to dig it back up and reread it if I get a chance.

    October 24, 2008 at 1:33 AM

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