Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Shield Flowers

I was reading through the ninth volume of the Florentine Codex recently, and came across an interesting tidbit giving more information on some of the flowers offered to Huitzilopochtli.  Even better, Sahagun points out these flowers were offered during Panquetzaliztli!

What flowers am I talking about?  Well, it’s a particular kind of flower called a chimalxochitl, or “shield flower.”  It’s a very large flower that was carried both by celebrants and by bathed slaves who were to be sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli.  As one might guess by the name, it represented a warrior’s shield.  This is particularly fitting, as the bathed slaves who were offered to Huitzilopochtli during Panquetzaliztli were the vaguard merchants’ equivalent of captured warriors.  Instead of capturing them phyiscally on the battlefield, the vaguard merchants, who fulfilled military purposes as well as commercial, captured them with their wealth, which was likened to the spoils of war.  I’ve discovered that these merchants were almost a paramilitary order during the Aztec Empire, something quite fascinating which I will get around to writing about one of these days.

Anyway, back to the flowers.  These shield flowers were carried by worshippers, they were carried by sacrificial victims.  They were strung into garlands which would decorate the temples of Huitzilopochtli, they were placed on the altar, and ornamented the idol sometimes.  They were everywhere during this Teotl’s festivals.

But what were they exactly?  Well, I’ll give you a couple of hints.  They’re huge, bright yellow, and their English and scientific names even reference a certain celestial body associated with Huitzilopochtli…

Give up?

They’re sunflowers!

Yes, sunflowers.  Helianthus annuus to be specific.  At least, the sunflower is the species that’s the top choice for the chimalxochitl among scholars.  Dibble and Anderson identify the flower in footnote 7 on page 34 of their English translation of Book 9: The Merchants, of the Florentine Codex. It pays to read footnotes!

You might be wondering why Huitzilopochtli’s so fond of flowers.  Well, quite a few reasons.  Flowers in general were symbolic of blood and warriors who died in battle.  In Aztec poetry, one frequently encounters descriptions of rains of flowers on the battlefield, indicating the warriors in their bright regalia dashing about like blossoms swaying in the wind, eventually falling like cut plants and watering the earth with their blood.  The dead soldiers would then live forever in Huitzilopochtli’s paradise, the House of the Sun, where they would enjoy the scent and color of beautiful flowers.  Eventually they would be reborn as birds and butterflies, living leisurely lives flitting from flower to flower.

“Flower and song” was a phrase meaning sung poetry, a common pastime of warriors both alive and dead.  The “flowery death” was death on the sacrificial stone, and the “Flower Wars” were ritual battles to capture men for sacrifice.  Finally, the first flowers of the year were reserved for Huitzilopochtli’s mother, Coatlicue, and none might pick or smell them until She had been given some.

Anyway, I thought I would share my discovery and Panquetzaliztli-oriented thoughts on it, in the spirit of the season.



Photo taken by Wajid Uddaim and generously put into the public domain. Thanks Wajid!

3 responses

  1. Xuchilpaba

    That’s why i used to have the screen name of Chimalxochitl. Plus sunflowers have always been one of my fave flowers.

    it’s weird I noticed that there are a lot of sexual connections with flowers in Aztec lore and literature. Likewise, a lot of the dirty words are similar and a lot use the “xochi” part. Like Xochihua is the polite Aztec term for a homosexual. I know, before you say it, and I will answer yes I am a pervert.

    November 27, 2008 at 9:34 PM

  2. cehualli

    Hehe, small world, eh?

    Suppose I’m not too surprised to hear that the Aztecs used the word flower in a sexual context a lot. That one seems to be universal the world over, especially in poetry.

    This does make me wonder a bit then if Xochiquetzal and Xochipilli’s names are intended to have something of a double entendre…

    Weird, WordPress recognized Xochipilli, but not Xochiquetzal. Ooo-kayyy…

    November 28, 2008 at 5:24 AM

  3. Xuchilpaba

    Yeah they are. Have you ever heard about the story of Xochiquetzal and Quetzalcoatl? Quetzalcoatl masturbates and his semen turns into a bat. It bites Xochiquetzal on her private area and the bat then sends the piece of flesh to the gods. The gods make flowers out of it, and it smells terrible. So the bat goes back for a second piece in the same spot on Xochiquetzal. This time the bat sends the flesh piece to Mictlantecuhtli and his wife, and from it they make flowers that smell good.

    I’ve never found this story online. But it was in one of my more coffee table books about the Aztecs. later Shock, and someone else talked about it on Black & Red.

    November 28, 2008 at 8:19 PM

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