Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

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.

Courtesy link to Omeyocanze’s page on YouTube for this danza 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.

4 responses

  1. Gary

    I’ve been looking through your blog recently and I find it quite interesting. Even though I am Saxon pagan/Native American spiritualist(Cree), I feel a draw towards the Aztec deities.

    March 16, 2012 at 2:28 PM

  2. cehualli

    Hi Gary,

    Pleased to meet you, and thanks for the kind words! The Teteo *are* certainly quite fascinating, studying the rich web of symbols surrounding even just one of Them is like turning an incredible faceted jewel in the light, every new angle revealing a whole burst of new meaning and connections that open more questions even as some old ones are answered. And given the way They form god-complexes and seem to shift and blur Their identities, there’s really no such thing as studying just one of Them at a given time. It reminds me of working on a fractal like the Mandelbrot Set, the way the patterns seem to spiral off forever.

    I hope my blog is helpful to you in your religious research, and feel free to make yourself at home reading and commenting. 🙂

    March 16, 2012 at 8:43 PM

  3. Shock

    Oh, I’m so happy you’re back! It’s Shock, BTW.

    I have to sleep, and just found this by total accident looking for the Borbonicus pic you used in a previous post, but I wanted to say a few things first.

    1. In another post, you equate flogging with lightning. Good call. In “Eating Landscape”, Arnold also makes this point in relation to whipping. In fact, I believe he provides citation to other instances of whipping equaling lightning. In a larger sense, blunt force trauma is a Mesoamerican Rain God thing. It’s very “Nucleo Duro”, to use a Lopez-Austin framework.

    2. You’re talking about the ties on Quetzalcoatl’s joints. He’s got em in the Borbonicus, too, but they’re placed closer to his wrists on His arms, rather than at the elbow. Later, in teh Borbonicus when you’ve got this Quetzalcoatl/Jaguar image, the wrist ties are there, along with the ones on the legs, this time closer to the ankles rather than at the knees. I mention this, because I’ve given thought to this specific iconographic element of Quetzalcoatl before. The Borgia group is obviously Mixtec influenced, which brings with it 9-Wind iconography and all the kickassedness that comes with it, which tends to be more on the war side of things. To me, it makes sense then for Quetzalcoatl to be tying off his joints. It may also be a sort of mini proxy for this one bit of priestly attire, the name of which I can’t remember, but that’s demonstrated on Quetzalcoatl’s arm in the Borgia (on a plate somewhere in the 40’s, it’s the ballgame related one with the likewise picture of Tezcatlipoca on the previous page). You know that cloth that Christian priests will wear over one arm? Well, the Aztecs had a version of it, except rather than just draping it they tied it. It might also be wise to consider such tie offs as some sort of ball playing gear relating to Quetzalcoatl as a Tlaloque. I say that because of :,r:15,s:13,i:135


    Oh, and the big picture of Tlaloc from the Laud also has His joints tied off.

    Enough for now, gotta go!

    April 8, 2012 at 6:11 AM

  4. cehualli

    Shock!!! So good to see you again! I hope life’s been treating you well. Damn, how I miss our epic nerd rambles about this stuff. I still think of that never-ending discussion about that mystery Borgia bat-deity, pulque, and ritual beheadings every time I see anything in that concept cluster. Thanks for the info dump on the ties, I’ll be sinking my teeth into that in a bit.

    I’m not surprised you brought up the fact that Tlaloc’s shown in several places wearing them as well, I knew I’d seen it but couldn’t remember where off the top of my head. I want to say He’s got them in a couple spots in one of the Borgia almanacs maybe, but I’d have to check to be sure.

    And you bet I’m back — and better than ever, with a bigger library than before. Looking forward to more of your delightfully informative comments as the spirit moves you!


    April 12, 2012 at 3:56 AM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s