Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

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Quiquiztli: The Conch Shell Trumpet

It’s the ending of the old baktun and the dawning of a new one, and I’d like to greet both the new era and the return of the Sun on this Winter Solstice with the blowing of conch horns!

Aztec Conch Trumpeter (quiquizoani), Codex Magliabecchi

Aztec Conch Trumpeter (quiquizoani), Codex Magliabecchi

The Aztecs named the conch shell trumpet quiquiztli, and the musicians who played them “quiquizoani.”  This is the instrument that Quetzalcoatl played to defeat the devious challenge of Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Dead, and reclaim the ancestral bones of humanity at the start of the Fifth Sun.  I have seen some speculation that the “mighty breath” blown by the Plumed Serpent to set that newborn Sun moving in the sky was actually a tremendous blast on a conch horn.  It’s the trumpet the priests played to call their colleagues to offer blood four (or five) times a night in the ceremony of tlatlapitzaliztli, and also during the offering of incense, according to Sahagun in the Florentine Codex .  Tecciztecatl, the male Moon God, is sometimes depicted emerging from the mouth of a quiquiztli.  The sound of the instrument itself was considered by the Aztecs to be the musical analog to the roar of the jaguar.  Like the twisting spiral within the shell, the associations are nearly endless, doubling back on each other in folds of life, death, night, dawn, and breath.

The quiquiztli appeared in two offerings at the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan (offering #88).  One shell was found on Tlaloc the Rain Lord’s side (not at all surprising, given the overwhelming watery connotations of the instrument).  A second one was found on Huitzilopochtli’s side of the manmade replica of Coatepetl.  If you would like to actually hear one of these very trumpets being played, you can click HERE to visit the International Study Group on Music Archaeology’s page for these trumpets.  You can directly download the MP3 recording by clicking HERE.

I also found a beautiful photograph of an Aztec or Mixtec conch trumpet (covered in intricate carvings) currently in the holdings of the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston.  If you’d like to view the photo and see their notes on the artifact, please click HERE.  If you’d rather jump right to the full-size, more detailed image, click HERE instead.

Want to learn more about the trumpet and its uses in Mesoamerican cultures past and present?  Head on over to Mixcoacalli and read Arnd Adje Both’s excellent 2004 journal article called “Shell Trumpets in Mesoamerica: Music-Archaeological Evidence and Living Tradition” (downloadable full text PDF).  It gives a valuable introduction to the instrument in Teotihuacan, Aztec, and Mayan societies and includes numerous interesting photos and line sketches as a bonus.  I couldn’t find a direct link to the article on his site, but I did find it on his server via Google.  As a courtesy, the link to his homepage is here.  There is some other interesting material relating to the study of ancient Mesoamerican music on there, so I recommend poking around.

What about South American cultures?  I’m a step ahead of you — why not go here to read an interesting article on Wired about a cache of 3,000 year old pre-Incan shell trumpets found in Chavin, Peru?  Includes recordings and photos.

Finally, if you’re curious for an idea of how the Aztecs and Maya actually played the quiquiztli, including how they changed the tone of the instrument without any finger-holes or other devices, you can view a demonstration by ethnomusicologist John Burkhalter below.  If you noticed that the trumpeter in the codex image I embedded earlier has his hand slipped into the shell, you’ll get to see what that actually does when the horn is played in the video.

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.

Conquistador Helm In Salem, MA Part 2

A quick post today to follow up on my last one.  I was digging through a disc of photos my father took while we were visiting Salem, and it turns out he also snagged a shot of the conquistador’s helmet.  He had a proper DSLR camera with him and was able to get a larger, higher resolution photo of the helm, so I’m posting it too so you can get a more detailed look.  As always, click to view the image in its full size.

Conquistador’s Helm at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA (photo copyright 2012 by John L.)

Conquistador’s Helm at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA (photo copyright 2012 by John L.)

Conquistador Helm In Salem, MA

Earlier this month I visited the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA and spotted a surprising object in their collection.  Amidst the lovely array of East Asian artwork (better than the MFA’s holdings in Boston proper, in my opinion), nautical paintings and artifacts, and other marvels, sitting unobtrusively on a shelf in their gallery devoted to curios collected by local sailors from around the world, sits a conquistador’s helmet.  I snapped a couple of photos to share with you all (please excuse the quality, I wasn’t planning on doing any photography and flashes were forbidden in the museum to boot).  Click to view the photos full size.

First, a shot of the whole helmet on its shelf.

Conquistador's Helm at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA

Conquistador’s Helm at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA (photo copyright 2012 by Cehualli)

Next, a close-up of the antique paper label pasted on the helm by a museum curator (presumably) a long time ago.  Judging by the paper, ink, and handwriting style, I’m guessing it was attached to the artifact sometime in the 19th century.  The label reads “An Ancient Spanish H[elmet] found in Mexico, and probably [worn?] by some of the followers of Cortez.”

Detail of the label attached to the conquistador's helmet.

Detail of the label attached to the conquistador’s helmet. (photo copyright 2012 by Cehualli)

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?

Colloquies Of The Twelve

I have quite the research treat for you tonight, dear reader!  After quite some time patiently hunting and following threads (and guessing the correct URL behind a broken link when one last barrier tried to put an end to my quest), I successfully tracked down the only English, full-text translation of an important Conquest-era work… the Colloquios y doctrina christiania (“Dialogues and Christian Doctrine”), often known to English speakers by its nickname “The Colloquies of the Twelve.”

The bilingual Nahuatl/Spanish text dates to about 1564 and was penned by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún.  The work concerns itself with recording a series of debates between Mexican religious and political authorities and a team of twelve friars sent by the Spanish crown to attempt to destroy the indigenous faith.  These verbal battles took place in the early 1520’s, shortly after the fall of the Aztec empire.  While Sahagún didn’t reach Mexico until 1529 and thus was a few years too late to have witnessed these discussions himself, he did consult ten out of twelve of the friars, as well as four Mexica informants and four eminent native scholars (Antonio Valeriano, Alonso Vegeriano, Martin Jacobita, and Andres Leonardo), in order to reconstruct the debates (albeit in a highly-poetic and dramatic form).

The lone surviving manuscript was lost for over three hundred years until it was rediscovered in the Vatican archives in the early twentieth century.  Sadly, of the thirty chapters, only fourteen have endured the ravages of time.  It received a German translation by Zelia Nuttall in the 1940’s, but remained untranslated into English until 1978, thanks to the effort of Jorge Klor de Alva (the first complete modern Spanish translation was executed by Miguel Leon-Portilla in 1977).  Its first and only publication was in the final issue of Alcheringa: Ethnopoetics, Volume Four, Number Two, published by Boston University in 1980.  This printing is the one I present you with today.

Click HERE to access the downloadable PDF containing the Colloquies of the Twelve at Alcheringa’s online archive.

I also recommend poking around in other volumes in Alcheringa’s archives, as they have quite a bit of interesting stuff back there, including more Mesoamerican research and several recordings of indigenous poetry recitations.  Thumbs up to Boston University for releasing these archives to the public, including the audio recordings that came with issues of this journal.

P.S. — As a bonus, this particular volume also includes several interesting Mayan legends I haven’t encountered anywhere else, and, related to my previous post, Thelma D. Sullivan’s full text translations of several birth/pregnancy huehuetlatolli speeches from Book 6 of the Florentine Codex.

*****

Book of the Colloquies; The Aztec-Spanish Dialogues of 1524. English edition translated and edited by Jorge Klor de Alva. Alcheringa/Ethnopoetics vol 4, no. 2:52—193.  1980.

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.