Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Study Of A Contemporary Huaxtec Celebration At Postectli

I came across an interesting article by Alan R. Sandstrom on FAMSI the other night. It is a summary of his observation of a modern Huaxtec ceremony honoring one of the Tlaloque, a rain spirit named Apanchanej (literally, “Water Dweller”). This festival took place in 2001 on Postectli, a mountain in the Huasteca region of Mexico.

A bit of background — the Huaxtecs are an ancient people, neighbors of the Aztecs. Like the Aztecs, they spoke and still speak Nahuatl, making them one of the numerous Nahua peoples. To this day they still live in their traditional home, one of the more rugged and mountainous sections of Mexico. They have retained more of their indigenous culture than some of the other nations that survived the Conquest due to their remoteness and the rough terrain that inhibited colonization. This includes many pre-Conquest religious traditions, even some sacrificial practices.

To read the short article summarizing Sandstrom’s experiences at the ceremony:

If you would like to read the article in English, please go HERE.

Si desea leer el artículo en español, por favor haga clic AQUI.

Some Highlights Related To Modern Practices

This article includes discussion of several details of particular interest to those interested in learning from the living practice of traditional religion. Of special note are photographs of the altar at the shrine on Postectli, including explanation of the symbols and objects on it (photograph 12). Also, the practice of creating and honoring sacred paper effigies of the deities involved in the ceremony is explored in some depth. Paper has traditionally been a sacred material among the Nahua tribes, and paper representations of objects in worship is a very old practice indeed. Additionally, there is some detail on tobacco and drink offerings, as well as the use of music and the grueling test of endurance inherent in the extended preparation and performance of this ritual.

Contemporary Animal Sacrifice

A key part of the article’s focus is on the modern practice of animal sacrifice and blood offerings that survive among the Huaxteca today. These forms of worship have by no means been stamped out among the indigenous people of Mexico, as Sandstrom documents. (Yes, there are photographs in case you are wondering — scholarly, not sensationalistic.) Offering turkeys is something that has been done since long before the Conquest, and from what I have read they remain a popular substitute for humans in Mexico. It’s fitting if you know the Nahuatl for turkey — if I remember right, it’s pipil-pipil, which translates to something like “the little nobles” or “the children.” If I’m wrong, someone please correct me, as I don’t have my notes on the Nahuatl for this story handy at the moment. They got that name because in the myth of the Five Suns, the people of one of the earlier Suns were thought to have turned into turkeys when their age ended in a violent cataclysm, and they survive in this form today. I doubt the connection would have been lost on the Aztecs when offering the birds.

Closing Thoughts

To wrap things up, Sandstrom’s article was a lucky find and is a valuable glimpse into modern-day indigenous practice . I strongly recommend stopping by FAMSI and checking it out, as my flyby overview of it can’t possibly contain everything of interest. On one last detail, I strongly encourage you to read the footnotes on this one — a lot more valuable info is hidden in those.

Tlaloc Seated on a Mountain Issuing Water, Plate 7 of the Codex Borbonicus

Tlaloc Seated on a Mountain Issuing Water, Plate 7 of the Codex Borbonicus

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8 responses

  1. Xuchilpaba

    Weren’t the Huaxtecs Mayan? I heard this before. And Veracruz is where i have a friend at, I think he said there was a bunch of Mayan stuff. but he was devoted to Mictlantecuhtli & loved the Tzitzimime.

    This seems interesting and I liked the symbolism of the flowers and palms on the altar that represent the sky realm and the seed boxes represent the earth.

    So you make paper figures complete with doll attire,(ad clean the clothes) place them in a box, and they symbolize the seeds? I believe Lord Tlaloc would like this. I never got around to sacrificing paper figures or anything. But there is a first time for everything. And since i have no chicken to sprinkle the blood on I will have to force feed myself Mountain dew and give him my own blood, which he is prolly more interested in anyway.

    “Helpers inserted lighted cigarettes into the paper figures’ mouths as a tobacco offering. These images represented Tlacatecolotl (Owl Man) and his wife who are leading figures in Mictlan, place of the dead. The offering was to prevent these harmful entities from interfering with or benefitting from the rituals dedicated to the sacred hill.”

    I find this interesting and may do it myself. I have never heard of people beckoning the Lord of Mictlan and his wife so that they may ave a good ritual. Maybe I will do this during a MAJOR ritual.

    I found the sleep deprivation interesting. Last ritual i did to Tezcatlipoca was very earlier in the morning, before sunrise. I was not sleepy when i first got to it,(i was energetic and giddy.) I was sleepy thereafter. I almost fell asleep during it! I don’t think Tez would have minded but I did not know of any rituals that involved any sort of sleep.

    But I have a question about copal. I got a bunch of white copal, and Shock mentioned along time ago that she burned white to Quetzalcoatl and black to Tezcatlipoca. But I read that the Mesoamericans, especially the Aztecs used black mostly. So far the gods have never complained. but I did have this stick copal that was black that they absolutely loved and told me to burn it. (I have since burned all of it fyi.)

    Oh btw I got book 2, 4, & 5 on it’s way of the Florentine.

    October 21, 2008 at 6:07 PM

  2. cehualli

    Hi Xuchil,

    Thanks for the juicy post! I’ll be back this weekend to reply to all of it, gotta just do a flyby right now on 2 points as I have work in the morning.

    1. Nope, the Huaxtecs are under the Nahua umbrella culturally and linguistically. I don’t know if they may share more genetic ancestry with the Maya than some other Nahua tribes though. Not something I’ve studied, especially since my focus runs more towards the Mexica-Tenochca (hmmm… I wonder Who might be the reason why… 🙂 )

    2. Haven’t heard the detail about black copal before. There are several points in the first 7 volumes of the FC where white copal is specified as an offering though. Pops up frequently in connection to Xiuhtecuhtli, and there are one or two references where Huitzilopochtli gets it as well. Tom’s labelled the stuff I have as golden copal, but comparing it to some photographs I’ve seen elsewhere, I’m inclined to believe they misidentified it and it’s actually white copal. The nuggets are powdery white, but when liquefied it turns gold. Hell if I know, but it sure smells amazing and Huitzilopochtli seems to be happy with it, so it’s all good. I would like to get my hands on some black copal to try though, along with stuff I’m certain is white and gold to compare them all. (And to see which is the Hummingbird’s favorite, of course.)

    Since you have white and black, do you notice a difference in scent?

    3. Aww yeah, you’re gonna like those books. 2 is excellent. 4/5 are interesting, though not quite as juicy as would be expected. Still interesting though. Hands down I can recommend 2,6, and 7 as the cream of the crop, with 3, 4/5, and 8 in the immediate next tier. 8 is best if you can get access to the Mendoza as well, as they cover similar topics and complement each other well. Don’t really need to buy the Mendoza necessarily unless the Tenochca are your main interest, but I definitely recommend Anawalt’s essays on warrior regalia and noble vs commoner clothing designs. GOOD stuff. The stuff in 8 about the warrior regalia doesn’t make squat sense without reading the Mendoza first, really.

    Can’t evaluate 9-12 yet, haven’t gotten to them yet. Bulldozing my way there though at a good clip.

    October 24, 2008 at 1:30 AM

  3. Xuchilpaba

    There is a difference. But it might be just me.. my white copal doesn’t appear to have a scent. or when it does it’s very, very vague. Maybe I am doing it wrong?

    I’ll have to pick up this codex Mendoza you speak of. Before you said that i didn’t even know it existed. Thanks for the recommendations though. I’m trying to buy all the books, but it may be a god idea if I got the ‘juicy’ ones to fill up on before I get the rest.

    October 24, 2008 at 10:14 PM

  4. cehualli

    That makes me more certain that what I have is mislabeled white copal. White copal is interesting stuff — it can produce an incredibly strong smell, but you have to really work to get it HOT if you’re not using charcoal tablets. It’s incredibly unforgiving of the slightest cooldown. Basically, if it’s not near-boiling (you’ll see small bubbles and convection in the liquid), it’s not hot enough to be at full power. When it is, it will flood the room with scent, enough to make you feel kinda funny. Oddly though, the smell is of such a nature that you grow accustomed to it very quickly and don’t notice it as much. At least that’s the case for me.

    If you’re using tealight candles like me, you have to keep the resin cup as close to the flame as you can safely manage, without making the metal of the cup (if you’re using metal) stink or worse, charring it. That smells disgusting and can be dangerous, as the soot builds up and can burn. Also, the vapor rising off the boiling resin will condense on nearby surfaces, including the bottom of the cup, and it will definitely burn. Trust me on that one… That’s part of the reason I frequently change the foil cup out, it’ll get resin buildup on itself over the course of a week or so of daily burning. It seems like about 1 centimeter from the peak of the flame is the best balance of safety to smell strength and quality for white copal.

    Given how regularly white copal shows up in the context of being offered to Xiuhtecuhtli, I wouldn’t be too surprised if it possibly needs more heat than other types — it tends to be described as being thrown directly into the fire. I need to order some black copal and experiment with that…

    October 26, 2008 at 2:52 AM

  5. cehualli

    Speaking of books, you’re welcome. Perhaps I should do a discussion on the different volumes of the FC when I’ve completed reading the set, to highlight priority/nature of usefulness for individual volumes from a Recon perspective. I’m definitely glad I have the whole set, but if I hadn’t found it for $200 I’d still be gradually putting it together.

    The Mendoza is an interesting read, but you would probably be best served by spending some quality time with a library copy and a Xerox machine for grabbing what you need. It’s brutally expensive new ($575 retail, when it happens to be in print, as it is for the moment) if you want the deluxe 1992 Berdan and Anawalt edition. Same price as the Florentine Codex, for a lot less material. Beautiful edition though.

    The Essential Codex Mendoza, which lacks the color facsimile but does still include the black and white, along with most of the essays, is currently out of print. I see unscrupulous booksellers gouging the price and playing off the confusion between the Essential and the full 4 volume set, charging the $600 for the Essential. Which is a bloody paperback!!! Even if it were in print, I believe it used to list for about $250. Nasty price.

    I’ve seen a cheaper Mendoza that’s not derived from the B & A editions, but I have no idea if it’s any good. A basic facsimile would still be handy though, especially since I am currently unaware of a full facsimile online. I’m watching for one, but no luck yet.

    So, I’d advise finding a library with the 4 volume Berdan set and photocopying the best stuff, though it’s an oversize set so that would be a pain.. hmmm… Carry a pocket recorder and read notes into it?

    Mmmm, book talk.. time for me to do my weekly check of certain sites…

    October 26, 2008 at 3:04 AM

  6. cehualli

    …Whoa… Just had a good find. Xuchil, I’ve emailed you privately about it.

    October 26, 2008 at 3:12 AM

  7. Xuchilpaba

    Oh i thought the difficulty burning the white copal was just me! I even burned myself doing a ritual to Itzpapalotl using it. (I thought that was ironic considering her association with fire.) It is resin and it’s extremely hard to burn. I have accidentally burned holes through things trying to burn it in metal containers. Unfortunatley I didn’t calculate that the metal containers heat up enough to burn through things. This happened in a Tezcatlipoca ritual… I am pretty sure he thought it was funny. Burning outside with winds is a headache. I can’t get it to burn and stay burning. :-/ It’s like the worst thing to burn outside.

    You had a foil cup for that? I should prolly do that. The buildup for me… Will build up for a few weeks or months sticking… and then it mysteriously comes off… I had one that they entire cake of it (which was A LOT) just popped out of the container once when I was getting worried about trying to get it out. Made my job easier.

    I got book $ and 5, but haven’t had time to read it yet… All I am awaiting is 2.

    October 26, 2008 at 7:36 PM

  8. cehualli

    Note RE the Essenial Codex Mendoza — I finally actually saw what it used to officially retail for. $45. HA, with one exception, it never sells anywhere near this price anymore.

    Ouch, see, that’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid. I did scald a fingertip once when I had to hurriedly remove a foil cup that cracked on me in the middle of an offering and was starting to leak liquid resin into the flame. That sucked. That taught me that, even if there’s no buildup on the bottom, change the bloody cup once a week, because the heating/cooling cycle will weaken the foil sufficiently at that point to run the risk of the cup breaking.

    Part of the reason it’s kind of fragile is that you want to use as little foil as possible — a single layer if you can manage without cracking or pinholing it. More foil = insulation, and a weaker smell.

    I’d just go ahead and use charcoal and be done with it, except I’m not particularly set up to make offerings outside at the moment. I’d need a different type of censer, one I can carry. I’ve seen these, the same kind the Danza Azteca groups use, but haven’t bought one yet. I’m not overly eager to do offerings outside, as I live in Boston — too many nosy neighbors who might react poorly to someone “worshipping the devil” next door. Bah.

    And yeah, I do use a foil cup. I need to post photos of my homemade no-charcoal censer. Hm. I know I have those pics on my hard drive somewhere…

    October 28, 2008 at 1:38 AM

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