Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

A Penitential Rite Of The Ancient Mexicans

I have discovered online a very interesting classic journal article about Aztec autosacrifice by the esteemed Dr. Zelia Nuttall. Written in 1904, it lacks the benefits of recent scholarship, but it still remains a keystone work in understanding the specific form of autosacrifice that is bloodletting from the ears. Dr. Nuttall provides detailed description and discussion of the various specific forms of ear sacrifice, accompanied by extensive translation from numerous codices and photographs of pictorial depictions of this type of penance. If you are interested in learning more about how the Aztecs traditionally performed ear sacrifice, I strongly recommend following the link to read the article. Even better, as it is in the public domain, the full text is available to download as a PDF through Google Books!

Click here to go read “A Penitential Rite of the Ancient Mexicans” by Dr. Zelia Nuttall!

Some highlights of this article are discussions of the close association of ear autosacrifice with the gods Tezcatlipoca, Mixcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, and Quetzalcoatl. Of particular interest during this veintana of Quecholli is the description of a special type of autosacrifice attributed to Mixcoatl, the God of the Hunt. The article includes several forms of ear sacrifice linked to specific veintanas, including Quecholli and Panquetzaliztli. Additionally, it describes a sacrifice offered on the day Nahui Ollin, the daysign of the current Sun, the Sun Four Movement.

Also interesting is Dr. Nuttall’s analysis of the jaguar/ocelot imagery surrounding Tezcatlipoca and his connection to the constellation Citlal-Xonecuilli, which is known today as either Ursa Major or Minor (a little help on which one, Shock?).  [Edit — It’s Ursa Major.  Thanks, Shock!]  Instead of a bear, the Aztecs saw the constellation as a jaguar and a symbol of Tezcatlipoca. It reminded them of the time when Tezcatlipoca, acting as the First Sun, was chased from the sky by Quetzalcoatl and descended to Earth in the form of a great jaguar to devour the giants, the first people. That is why the constellation seems to swoop from its peak in the sky down to the horizon, reenacting this myth every day in the night sky.

My only irritation with this article is a few points where the good doctor strays from proper anthropological neutrality to make disparaging comments about the practice of autosacrifice, and to congratulate the Spaniards on stamping it out. I’ll admit it, I do derive a certain sly pleasure in discussing it here so that it’s not forgotten!

Jaguar Vessel

Jaguar Vessel

10 responses

  1. Xuchilpaba

    Very interesting! I never heard of Tezcatlipoca being connected to stars as much as I hear about Tlaloc & especially Quetzalcoatl…. I wish I knew more about Aztec astronomy myself.

    November 10, 2008 at 7:16 PM

  2. Shock

    Oy vey! I’ve been so out of the loop! I actually just ran across your blog from a completely different angle doing a completely unrelated Google search.

    Anyway, the myth about Tez and the stars has to do with Ursa Major. The Big Dipper is supposed to be His the foot that He lost, His footprint when He went raging across the sky as a jaguar, or a jaguar itself depending on what sources you read. Scholarly interps will range between these three variants, but I’ve only ran across the footprint in the sky in a Nahua primary source, though I couldn’t tell you which one off the top of my head. I’d have to go consult Mockeries and Metamorphoses and then the quoted source.

    But there’s more to the story than just this! You know how the Big Dipper circles the North Star? Well, the North Star is associated with the hearth of the Omeyocan. Tez can’t approach it because He was one of the Teteo got the boot, and that’s why His footprint circles the North Star. At least that’s one interp I’ve heard, though I can’t remember where from, so take it with a grain of salt.

    However, I like the footprint theory for another reason, one that I wrote about in a paper roughly two years ago. If you look at the astronomical timing of the Big Dipper at Mexico City’s latitude, you’ll notice that the timing of it’s placement in the sky coincides with Toxcatl and Teotleco. It’s at max height during the end of Toxcatl, when Tez’s impersonator was sacrificed, and then it descends and disappears in august, only to reappear roughly during Teotleco on the 21st. Now, look back at what Sahagun says about when Teotleco started; Tez was the first of the Teteo to arrive, and His arrival happened when a footprint appeared in a bowl of cornmeal that was set out at night and watched by a designated priest. Now… What if we’re talking about a sympathetic metaphor here? Mereckons it was the stars they were watching for if the footprint story is correct. Ideally, I’d like to go after this idea with better astronomical software and some bare sight observations, but that will have to wait. But what the hell? I already wrote about it so it’s my intellectual property. I can take my dear, sweet time. 😀

    November 10, 2008 at 8:31 PM

  3. cehualli

    Hi Xuchil,

    Glad you liked it! Yeah, Tezcatlipoca as a nocturnal deity has a LOT of star symbology and connections. Given Nuttall’s mention of an “S-shaped” constellation being linked to Tezcatlipoca, I have to wonder if it’s not the same constellation the tzitzimime and Itzpapalotl are associated with. The “S shape” of the constellation is why the “S-shaped” tamales are made during certain holidays for the cihuateteo/tzitzimime, I think. Fun with food symbology!

    November 12, 2008 at 5:36 AM

  4. cehualli

    Hi Shock,

    Haha, mentioning your name always summons you when I need your expertise on archaeoastronomy! Thanks very much for clarifying which of the two Ursas is connected with Tezcatlipoca, I knew you’d know that one. 🙂

    Interesting variants — I’ve heard the footprint and jaguar ones, but not the third. Perhaps I’ll do a little piece on the three versions sometime!

    RE: Footprint constellation & Teotleco — oooooooooohhh… that is juicy… and it makes perfect sense. Fascinating!! I’d been wondering when Teotleco rolled around this year what exactly was meant by the ritual of watching for Tezcatlipoca’s footprint. I was pretty skeptical about a footprint literally appearing in cornmeal, but watching for a particular constellation to reappear, especially with all the other times the stars are used to signal when to do ceremonies, makes it snap together quite nicely!

    If you do decide to go whole hog on researching that idea and write up a paper on it, let me know — I want to read it for sure, and I’d gladly host it for you. 🙂

    November 12, 2008 at 5:43 AM

  5. Xuchilpaba

    >Given Nuttall’s mention of an “S-shaped” constellation being linked to Tezcatlipoca, I have to wonder if it’s not the same constellation the tzitzimime and Itzpapalotl are associated with.

    I do have a reference to Tezcatlipoca descending from heaven during the Tula sha-bang like a spider on a thread. The same description given about the Tzitzimime.

    November 12, 2008 at 6:27 PM

  6. Shock

    Hrm… More star/food connections. I’ve been thinking about the cornmeal thing, and, for the life of me, I couldn’t think of any Nahua analogies between food and stars. But this Tzitzimime thing changes the game.

    Corn is a product of the Earth, but we know it’s got sky connections. In areas of rural Mexico, if someone comes across corn on the ground, that might have fallen out of a seed bag or something, they’ll stop to pick up every one because stepping on it or otherwise mistreating it could upset the corn. The danger of this is that that corn could go whining to the Rain God for retribution, and He’s known to smite first and ask questions later. Did a similar belief exist amongst the Aztecs? Probably. Sahagun, when talking about superstitions, mentions that corn was not be be stepped on, because it would go complain, hence the guilty party would get it’s just deserts. That puts corn in a “sky” type category. Hrm….

    November 16, 2008 at 10:16 PM

  7. cehualli


    I’ve heard the variant of the story where Tez is described descending on a spider’s thread, but I’m not familiar with descriptions of descent regarding the tzitzimime — I’m quite curious to hear where you came across that one!

    November 20, 2008 at 2:01 AM

  8. cehualli


    Yeah, I think I know the Sahagun reference you’re thinking of, came across it recently myself. That’s fascinating that the courtesy to corn still survives to this day.

    I suppose it might still have a “residual” sky connection also if you back all the way up to the initial creation story. Cipactli’s vegetative bounty only appears when Her Earthy self is reshaped by the celestial gods, after all. Random thought.

    November 20, 2008 at 2:09 AM

  9. Xuchilpaba

    From An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, Mary Miller, Karl Taube entry’s one Tzitzimime:

    “The Tzitzimime were believed to dive head first from the heavens, and for this reason, they were compared to a spider haning head downward from a thread.”

    November 21, 2008 at 7:37 PM

  10. cehualli

    Ahhh, I see! Thanks, Xuchil!

    November 24, 2008 at 3:43 AM

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