Censers and Incense of Mexico and Central America
While doing some research on different types of censers (incense burners) used in Mesoamerica, I came across a useful article on the subject by Walter Hough, entitled (creatively) “Censers and Incense of Mexico and Central America.” The article dates from 1912 and doesn’t have the benefit of recent excavations at the Huey Teocalli in Mexico City, but I still found it valuable as a solid overview of the major types of incense burners (popochcomitl in Nahuatl) used in precolumbian Mexico and neighboring regions. It’s a well-organized and reasonably-concise article, and contains a good number of photographs of examples for each of the major shapes and style variations by broad ethnic groupings. To read “Censers and Incense of Mexico and Central America” by Walter Hough via GoogleBooks, please click HERE. A full-text PDF of the article can also be downloaded, as the article is in the public domain. (A warning note — unsurprisingly, given its age, Hough’s article is marred by some obnoxious ethnocentric language common to writing from the period. Fortunately, it’s less pervasive than what I’ve seen from some of his contemporaries, so hopefully you can look past it to benefit from the real meat of the essay.)
I’d like to comment briefly on some of the most interesting parts of the article. I’ll start with some thoughts about the large, stationary “hourglass” type censer he mentions, which were permanent installations at the temples (depicted on page 9 of the PDF, page 112 in the original numbering). Called tlexictli, or “fire navels,” they instantly bring to mind Xiuhtecuhtli (also called Huehueteotl), the ancient Lord of Fire, who is said to dwell in the “navel” of the universe, as recorded throughout the Florentine Codex by Sahagun. Also according to Sahagun, these large braziers provided not only continual light, warmth, and a place to burn copal, but were used in the disposal of some offerings and ritual implements. The objects to be cremated were burned in a tlexictli, and then the ashes were buried at certain holy sites on the edge of bodies of water (Hough, PDF p.11). It’s a fascinating variation on the theme of water meets fire that pervades traditional Aztec thought, here manifesting in a team effort of the two opposing forces in destroying sanctified objects that are due to leave the physical world for the spiritual realm.
Staying on the subject of the tlexictli a moment longer, I’d like to call your attention to the photo on page 44 of the PDF, which shows one of the “fire navel” braziers. Around the narrow waist of the censer is a knotted bow. These bows frequently show up in Aztec art, either tied around objects that are being offered or tied around people, animals, or gods. Quetzalcoatl is often shown in the codices with these bows tied around his knees and elbows, such as in plate 56 of the Codex Borgia. Mictlantecuhtli is wearing the pleated paper bows around his joints as well. To my knowledge, we don’t yet fully understand the complex meaning behind these bows, but they’re definitely associated with priestly activity and sacrifice. In that light, it seems appropriate to see these bows appear on the tlexictli.
Moving on to more familiar territory, Hough’s paper covers the ladle-type censer commonly depicted in the hands of priests offering incense in the codices, as discussed in my earlier post on the subject of daily copal offerings by the clergy. In his scheme of classification, it is labeled as a type of “gesture”popochcomitl, so called because it’s intended to be held in the hand and used in various motions during ceremony to direct the sweet smoke towards its intended recipient(s). According to the author, this ladle-like shape is a signature of gesture censers among the Nahua peoples, and isn’t as prevalent among groups to the north and south of Central Mexico. This seems to be reflected in the surviving codices, as the majority of the examples I can recall offhand are that shape. I’ve seen a few examples of a bowl-shaped vessel with copal in it as well in the ancient books, which may match the small bowl-type censers he notes as being universal across Mesoamerica.
Gesture censers in varying shapes were used outside of temple activities, as Sahagun notes that the duty to offer copal was shared by everyone in the Aztec empire, which Hough comments on in the household context a bit. Sahagun also recorded that copal was offered before performances of song and dance at the houses of the nobles, which presumably involved small censers that could be manipulated with a hand in at least some cases. I mention that possibility because it’s a custom still widely in use today, as seen among the danza Azteca groups around the world, and one that I can show you as I wrap up today’s post.
The video below is a recording of a dance for Tonatiuh, the Sun, and the dancers have several goblet-shaped censers that they use to offer copal smoke to the four directions. Once the offering is finished, they place the censers back among the other objects of the dance altar spread out on the ground, letting the copal continue to burn and smoke as they dance. Thanks go to Omeyocanze for posting this lovely video.
*Apologies for not having the citations for Sahagun’s Florentine Codex in just yet, but it’s quite late and I must call it a night before getting up for work later. I’ll add them in when I get the chance soon.