Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

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Aztec Art Photostream by Ilhuicamina

Happy New Year’s!  Instead of fireworks, let’s ring in the new year with a superb photostream from Flickriver user Ilhuicamina.  This set is of exceptional quality and covers many significant artworks excavated from the Templo Mayor and safeguarded by INAH at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.  Take a look!

Click HERE to visit Ilhuicamina’s Aztec Art Photostream!


Xultún And The Baktun

In honor of the approaching end of the 13th baktun on December 21, per the famous Mayan calendar, I’d like to write about a piece of ironclad historical evidence contradicting the “Mayan doomsday” nonsense.  That particular piece of evidence lies in the ruins of Xultun.

Xultun was once a flourishing Mayan metropolis, and its importance continues to the present day as the site of a series of murals of great significance to clearing up an archaic misunderstanding of the great calendar.  More specifically, painted on the walls in a house that appears to have been a workshop for scribes and astronomers, is a series of complex astronomical tables  extending well past the end of 2012.  In other words, the Mayan astronomers of the ninth century C.E. most certainly didn’t think the world would end when the thirteenth baktun did, but instead carried on with their work charting planetary and stellar activities well beyond the supposed end of the world.  “So much for the supposed end of the world,” quips William Saturno, one of the present-day (re) discoverers of these scientific calculations.

Another of Saturno’s comments sums up the contrast between Western pop culture’s misconceptions and Mayan thought nicely, in my opinion —  “We keep looking for endings… the Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It’s an entirely different mindset.” (National Geographic, 5/10/2012)

After the above excerpts, you might be interested in getting a look at Xultun and these murals for yourself.  If so, you’re in luck!

If you click HERE, you can view National Geographic’s “Giga Pan” high resolution photographs of some of the murals.

If you’d like to explore the beautiful stone stelae (carvings) that dot the city, you can click HERE to visit the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard’s website cataloguing a bit of the site’s history, its carvings, and their locations around the town.  (The diagrams of the carvings are in the list on the lefthand side of the page.)

Finally, National Geographic has also prepared a short video on the discoveries at Xultun for your viewing pleasure, which you can view HERE if you have trouble viewing the embedded version below.


Aztecs In The Werner Forman Archive

Tonight I’ve decided to bring your attention to a major collection of photographs of Aztec and other Mesoamerican art, crafts, and architecture.  It’s housed at the Werner Forman Archive in the United Kingdom.  It’s a treasure trove of wonderful pictures of literally thousands of different objects and places around the world, including pictures relating to the Aztecs, Maya, Teotihuacanos, and other peoples of Central America.

Click HERE to enter the Archive and  begin browsing or searching.

You can browse their Precolumbian section for photos covering both North and South American peoples, or you can try searching for Aztec, Maya, or more specific keywords.  To give you a hint at how much there is to explore, the full Precolumbian section has 763 photos available online!

As they don’t appear to look kindly on people rehosting their images, and hotlinking is rude, I’ll just drop a  few direct links here to some particularly interesting photos to get you started…

Click here to see a sculpture of Tlaloc, Lord of Storms and Tlalocan, in His Earth-lord guise.

Want to see a pectoral device in the shape of a chimalli (shield)?

How about Quetzalcoatl’s signature necklace, the wind jewel?

Or maybe Emperor Ahuizotl’s amazing featherwork shield?


Aztec Schooling: Calmecac and Telpochcalli

In honor of back to school season in my part of the world, I’d like to share some notes on Aztec education, as well as a link to an article on the rediscovery and initial excavation of the calmecac in modern-day Mexico City.  In case you’re not familiar with the calmecac, it’s one of two schooling institutions created by the Aztecs to educate their children.  Dibble and Anderson translate the name “Priests’ House” or “House of Penance,” for reasons that will become clear below.  The telpochcalli, or “Young Men’s House,” could be described roughly as a cross between a military and trade school, in Western/European terms.  It’s the school primarily populated by the non-aristocratic children, where they would be trained in combat and economic matters more typical of their station.

In contrast, the calmecac is more akin to a seminary, elite prep school, and college rolled together.  Primarily attended by the offspring of the noble class, it’s reported that certain common-born children of especial talent were allowed to go as well, despite their lineage.  Here the children would learn basic priestly training, military skills, the arts, etiquette, and leadership.  While we have records of these two schools existing within the walls of Tenochtitlan, it wasn’t until 2007 that archaeologists had uncovered the remains of any part of these two educational complexes.  If you would like to read an article in the Christian Science Monitor reporting on this discovery, please click HERE.  (It includes a photograph of one of the ornaments that once decorated the roof of this indigenous American university — the cross section of a twisting shell, named the “wind jewel,” a symbol of Quetzalcoatl the Plumed Serpent, lord of learning.)

Unlike many other cultures past (and present, sadly), the Mexica-Tenochca were quite progressive with regards to education.  They sought to put most children though one of the two schools described above, making them among the earliest proponents of universal education.  Even more exemplary was the fact that that this education extended to girls as well as boys!  No child left behind?  The Aztecs had it covered.

While there were differences in which form of education a child would receive, heavily influenced by social standing as noted above, it appears there was some flexibility according to the parent’s wishes, according to Sahagun’s informants in the Florentine Codex (Book 6, Chapter 39, p. 209, Dibble & Anderson trans.).  When the parents had chosen which educational path their child would take, a celebration was hosted.  If the child would go to the telpochcalli, the schoolmasters would be invited over for food and drink, the exchange of gifts, and to meet their future pupil.  Then they would cradle the child in their arms and swear to guide the child until he or she was ready to leave their school, take a spouse, and establish their own household.  (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.209). Tezcatlipoca was invoked as the patron of this child’s educational career.  (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.210)

If the parents chose to send the child to the calmecac, a celebration was still held, but instead the class of priests called quaquacuiltin were invited to the house.  Once again, they were feasted and presented with gifts, and the priests held the child and dedicated her or him to Quetzalcoatl, and promise that the child will carry out his/her responsibilities as a religious novitiate and seek the god’s knowledge.  They closed their oration with a plea for the Feathered Serpent’s blessing and consent for these educational gifts.  (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.210)

Sahagun records that a girl dedicated to the calmecac received a distinctive scarification mark on her hips and chest at this time, and was also given a special necklace marking her as destined for a religious education, the yaqualli pendant.  (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.210)  He doesn’t note what marks and accoutrements the boys were given.

After this initial encounter with their future educators, whether the martial headmasters of the telpochcalli or the religious experts of the calmecac, the child stayed with their parents for another few years until they were deemed old enough to attend the school they had been promised to.  After that, they were sent to live at the schools until they completed their education and struck out on their own adult lives.

*****

Sahagún, Bernardino , Arthur J. O. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble. General History of the Things of New Spain: Florentine Codex. Santa Fe, N.M: School of American Research, 1950-1982, Book VI, pp.209-211.


Astronomical Alignments at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, Mexico

In honor of the spring equinox, I’d like to share an interesting article by Ivan Šprajc that explores some theories regarding possible astronomical associations of the architecture of the Grand Temple. Mr. Šprajc is a Slovenian archaeoastronomy specialist with an interest in the ancient astronomical practices of the Aztec, Maya, and Teotihuacan peoples. This paper, “Astronomical Alignments at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, Mexico” is the result of the studies he conducted at the excavation site of the Huey Teocalli in Mexico City.

In this paper, Šprajc agrees with his predecessors Aveni, Calnek, Tichy, and Ponce de Leon that the Templo Mayor was indeed constructed to align with certain astrological phenomena and dates.  This initial concept is partially based on some clues recorded by Mendieta that the feast of Tlacaxipehualiztli “fell when the sun was in the middle of Uchilobos [archaic Spanish spelling of Huitzilopochtli].”

The more traditional position, held by Aveni et al and supported by Leonardo López Luján in “The Offerings of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan” (2006) holds that the festival’s beginning was marked by the perfect alignment of the sunrise between the two sanctuaries atop the Temple on the first day of the veintena according to  Sahagun.  To wit, Sahagun recorded that the festival month began on March 4/5 (depending on how you correct from the Julian to Gregorian calendar) and ended shortly after the vernal equinox.

Unlike his peers, Šprajc concludes that the festival of Xipe Totec was marked by the sun setting along the axis of the Teocalli.  At that time, the sun would seem to vanish as it dropped into the V-shaped notch between the two shrines of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli.  His conclusion partially stems from a slightly different measurement of the orientation of the temple than the other archaeologists, and his preference for Mendieta’s dating of the start and end of Tlacaxipehualiztli, which would start right around the vernal equinox and then end on about April 4th.

Who do I think is correct?  I think the jury is still out.  Both the sunrises and sunsets were marked by the priests with copal offerings and music, and both were involved in the flow of various festivals, so we know for sure that the scholars and clergy of Tenochtitlan assigned significance to both.  Given the issue of varying estimates of how much the Templo Mayor has settled into the soft soil of the remains of Lake Texcoco, and differing theories on how much the structure has warped due to intentional destruction and pressure from the layering of Mexico City on top, and it becomes hard to present a bulletproof argument for either side.

Šprajc presents some additional interesting possibilities for alignments with Mount Tlamacas and Mount Tlaloc nearby, and a potential method of tracking the movement of the sun that possesses regular intervals of 20 days (matching an Aztec month) and 26 days (two Aztec weeks) that are intriguing.  However, I generally consider Sahagun more reliable than Mendieta, as his research methods were among the best at the time, and modern study has tended to vindicate his records over those of historians working at a greater remove in time after the Conquest.  There’s also the issue that Šprajc seems to be quite outnumbered when it comes to support for his alignment, and some of those who disagree with him, like Leonardo López Luján, have devoted decades of their lives to studying the Templo Mayor specifically.  I’d also like to close with the possibility that everyone could be wrong — the tendency to see astronomical alignments under every rock and bush that were never intended by the people they’re studying has plagued archaeology for a very long time, and in the end, it could be the case here as well.  Regardless, the debate is interesting and well worth reading, and the journal article contains a number of useful photographs and diagrams of deep within the layers of the Templo Mayor that are rewarding in and of themselves.

To download a full-text PDF copy of the journal article for free from the Inštitut za antropološke in prostorske študije (Institute of Anthropological and Spatial Studies), please click HERE.  Alternatively, you can read it on-line at Issuu in simulated book format straight from your web browser by clicking HERE.

As a bonus, I’ve embedded a beautiful video recorded by Psydarketo below.  It’s footage of the sun rising and aligning in the central doorway of the sanctuary atop the Mayan temple at Dzibilchaltun on March 20th, 2011 — last year’s spring equinox.  It’s a similar technique to what I discussed above at the Templo Mayor, except that the sun is framed in the doorway rather than in the V-shaped space between twin sanctuaries.  Close enough to help give a picture of how things would have looked in Tenochtitlan, and wonderful to watch in its own right.

Courtesy link to the original video at Psydarketo’s YouTube page.

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WorldCat Citation

Šprajc, I. (January 01, 2000). Astronomical alignments at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, Mexico.Archaeoastronomy, 31, 25, 11-40.


Wirikuta

Today I came across some interesting news articles documenting the ongoing struggle of the Huichole (Wixáritari) people to protect one of their holiest sites in the state of San Luis Potosí, Mexico.   The site in question is a beautiful mountain region named Wirikuta in the Huichol tongue, which Spanish-speakers call Cerro del Quemado.  In English, the name is roughly translated as “Burned Mountain,” a fitting name for the place where the sun ascended from the Earth’s surface to the skies in traditional belief.

Despite being considered an internationally-recognized protected site by UNESCO and the Mexican government, Wirikuta is currently under threat from foreign mining interests.  In 2009, the Canadian mining company, First Majestic Silver Corp., bought mineral rights to the area, and plans extensive extraction of silver, a process which will consume a significant portion of the area’s limited water supply, as well as expose the countryside to dangerous chemicals used in silver mining, such as cyanide, which have a deadly tendency to seep into the groundwater and render it undrinkable.  This threat to the mountain and the fragile aquifer rooted at it is all the more horrifying when one recalls that mountains were and still are considered to be hearts of earth and water, or “houses of mist” all across Mesoamerica, a belief uniting the imperial Mexica-Tenochca with their present-day Huichol cousins.  Viewed through this lens, it’s not at all surprising that a threat to Wirikuta is a threat to the aquifer and all life in its nourishing influence.

In addition to the physical destruction that mining unavoidably brings, there will be spiritual destruction.  Wirikuta is home to many sacred plants, such as peyote, animals, and divine beings, particularly deities associated with rain.  Destroying the mountain will destroy these creatures and desecrate the site, which will sever the Huichol from their spiritual root.  Drawing a Judeo-Christian-Islamic parallel, Dawn Paley likened digging up Wirikuta to “bulldozing Eden for a golf course” in her detailed coverage of this issue in This Magazine.   Furthermore, this mountain is not only a place to gather vital religious supplies, but it is also a natural temple, a place to conduct ceremony.  Cerro del Quemado, the sacred center of Wirikuta, is the destination of a traditional 800 kilometer yearly pilgrimage conducted by the Huichol people to renew bonds of community and deity.

This February, the journey had an additional goal of seeking guidance in protecting the holy ground from destruction, and by extension, themselves — the Huichol view themselves as inseparable from the sacred site so intimately intertwined with their culture and ancestry, and have stated they view First Majestic’s plans to dig as a “war of extermination” against them.  The Esperanza Project has a beautiful account of the ceremony held on February 6-7th, 2012, complete with numerous photographs and interviews with several Huichol community leaders and observers about the meeting and the ideas and hope flowing from it.  They were kind enough to allow journalists to record some footage of song and ceremony from this holy gathering, which you may watch below.

Courtesy link to Mysticalfrequency’s original YouTube posting

To view video statements by the Huichol against this impending desecration and in support of their traditional spirituality and lifeways, please click HERE.  The linked site, www.nierika.info, also contains many interesting articles on this matter if you would like to read more, both in English and in Spanish.

Below, for those who wish to learn more, I’ve included a short video discussing this crisis and calling for action.  I can’t seem to get it to embed properly, so please click the link below to check it out.

Click to watch on Venado Mestizo’s Vimeo page

You may be wondering where you can go to read and watch more, and learn how you can get involved in putting pressure on First Majestic to abort their plans for this site.  I would like to highlight the Wirikuta Defense Front’s excellent site (click for English or Spanish).  They are an action group composed of people from the Huichol community, as well as local and international allies, and are seeking volunteers to help.


Tigre Boxing In Acatlan: Jaguar & Tlaloc Masks

Up today is another video about the Mexican Tigre combat phenomenon I discussed  a few weeks ago.  This one shows a style of fighting practiced in Acatlan.  Instead of rope whip-clubs as in Zitlala, these competitors duel with their fists.

Courtesy link to ArchaeologyTV’s page on YouTube for this Tigre combat video.

A particularly interesting feature of this video is the variety of masks.  Not only do you see the jaguar-style masks, but you’ll also see masks with goggle eyes.  Goggle eyes are, of course, one of the signature visual characteristics of Tlaloc, the very Teotl this pre-Columbian tradition was originally dedicated to.  (And still is in many places, beneath the surface layer of Christian symbols.)  If you look closely, you might notice that some of the goggle eyes are mirrored.  The researchers behind ArchaeologyTV interviewed one of the combatants, who said that the significance of the mirrors is that you see your own face in the eyes of your opponent, linking the two fighters as they duel.

This idea of a solemn connection between two parties in sacrificial bloodshed was of major importance in many  of the pre-Conquest religious practices of the Aztecs.  It can be seen most clearly in the gladiatorial sacrifice for Xipe Totec during Tlacaxipehualiztli.  During this festival, the victorious warrior would refer to the man he captured in battle as his beloved son, and the captive would refer to the victor as his beloved father.  The victim would be leashed to a round stone that formed something of an arena, and given a maquahuitl that had the blades replaced with feathers, while his four opponents were fully-armed.  As the captor watched the courageous victim fight to the death in a battle he couldn’t win, he knew that next time, he might be the one giving his life on the stone to sustain the cosmos.