Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Posts tagged “agave

A Few Aztec Riddles

Watching the Hobbit in theatres last weekend got me thinking about riddles.  Not only are they amusing, but the figurative language and ideas contained within them can point to interesting tidbits of culture.  I’ve pulled a few of my favorites from the Florentine Codex and included them below, in slightly more informal language.  After each riddle and its answer I’ve added some of my own notes and interpretations of the concepts they nod to (the commentary is my own work, not that of Anderson and Dibble).

Q: What’s a small blue gourd bowl filled with popcorn?

A: It’s the sky.

Mesoamerican cosmology divides the universe into sky and heavens (topan) above, the earth’s surface like a pancake or tortilla in the middle (tlalticpac), and the underworld (mictlan) below.  Though all three have their own distinct and separate characteristics, they interpenetrate to a certain degree, and this riddle hints at that in a playful manner.  The gourd itself is a product of the earth and its underworld powers, doubly so as it’s a water-filled plant (and is often likened to the human head), as is popcorn.  In fact, first eating corn is the moment where an infant becomes bound to the earth deities as it takes of their bounty and starts to accumulate cold, heavy “earthy-ness” within its being.  It’s also the start of a debt to the earth and vegetation gods — as They feed the child, one day that child will die and return to the earth to feed Them.  I covered some aspects of this idea in my Human Corn post, if you’re curious to read more.

Q: What’s the little water jar that’s both carried on the head and also knows the land of the dead?

A: The pitcher for drawing water.

The land of the dead is traditionally conceived of as a place dominated by the elements of earth and water, filled with cool, oozy dampness.  Rivers, wells, springs, and caves were places where the underworld power was considered to leak through to the mortal realm.  Not only did this power seep through to us, but we could sometimes cross through them to reach the underworld as well (the legendary Cincalco cave being one of the most famous of these doors).  Thus, thrusting the jar down into a watering hole or a spring, breaking through the fragile watery membrane, was sending it into Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue’s world in a way.

Q: What lies on the ground but points its finger to the sky?

A: The agave plant.

The agave plant, called metl in Nahuatl and commonly referred to as a maguey in the old Spanish sources, is a plant loaded with interesting cultural associations.  Its heart and sap is tapped to produce a variety of traditional and modern liquors like pulque, octli, and tequila, linking it to the earth-linked liquor gods like Nappatecuhtli, Mayahuel, and even Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl in their pulque god aspects.  Additionally, each thick, meaty leaf is tipped with a long black spine that’s much like a natural awl.  This spine was one of the piercing devices used by priests and the general public alike to perform autosacrifice and offer blood to the gods.  Lastly, the beautiful greenish-blue color of the leaves of some species (like the blue agave), is the special color traditionally associated with beautiful, divine things.  Take a look at a photo of the respendent quetzal’s tailfeathers — they’re just about the same color as the agave.

Q: What’s the small mirror in a house made of fir branches?

A: Our eye.

The Aztecs strongly associated mirrors with sight and understanding.  Several gods, most notably Tezcatlipoca (the “Smoking Mirror”), possessed special mirrors that would allow them to see and know anything in the world by peering into them.  Some of the records we have  from before and during the Conquest record that some of the statues of the gods had eyes made of pyrite or obsidian mirrors, causing a worshipper standing before them to see themselves reflected in the god’s gaze.  In the present day, some of the tigre (jaguar) boxers in Zitlala and Acatlan wear masks with mirrored eyes, discussed in this post and video.  One last point on mirrors — in many of the huehuetlatolli (ancient word speeches), the speaker implores the gods to set their “light and mirror” before someone to guide them, symbolizing counsel, wisdom, and good example.  The comparison of eyelashes to fir branches is rather interesting, as it reminds me of the common practice in many festivals of decorating altars with fresh-cut fir branches.  The two elements combine to suggest a tiny shrine of enlightenment, the magic mirror nestled in its fragrant altar like a holy icon.

Q: What’s the scarlet macaw in the lead, but the raven following after?

A: The wildfire.

I included this one simply because I thought it was exceptionally creative and clever.  I’m pretty sure it would stump even a master riddler like Gollum!


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.236-239.

A Penitential Rite Of The Ancient Mexicans

I have discovered online a very interesting classic journal article about Aztec autosacrifice by the esteemed Dr. Zelia Nuttall. Written in 1904, it lacks the benefits of recent scholarship, but it still remains a keystone work in understanding the specific form of autosacrifice that is bloodletting from the ears. Dr. Nuttall provides detailed description and discussion of the various specific forms of ear sacrifice, accompanied by extensive translation from numerous codices and photographs of pictorial depictions of this type of penance. If you are interested in learning more about how the Aztecs traditionally performed ear sacrifice, I strongly recommend following the link to read the article. Even better, as it is in the public domain, the full text is available to download as a PDF through Google Books!

Click here to go read “A Penitential Rite of the Ancient Mexicans” by Dr. Zelia Nuttall!

Some highlights of this article are discussions of the close association of ear autosacrifice with the gods Tezcatlipoca, Mixcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, and Quetzalcoatl. Of particular interest during this veintana of Quecholli is the description of a special type of autosacrifice attributed to Mixcoatl, the God of the Hunt. The article includes several forms of ear sacrifice linked to specific veintanas, including Quecholli and Panquetzaliztli. Additionally, it describes a sacrifice offered on the day Nahui Ollin, the daysign of the current Sun, the Sun Four Movement.

Also interesting is Dr. Nuttall’s analysis of the jaguar/ocelot imagery surrounding Tezcatlipoca and his connection to the constellation Citlal-Xonecuilli, which is known today as either Ursa Major or Minor (a little help on which one, Shock?).  [Edit — It’s Ursa Major.  Thanks, Shock!]  Instead of a bear, the Aztecs saw the constellation as a jaguar and a symbol of Tezcatlipoca. It reminded them of the time when Tezcatlipoca, acting as the First Sun, was chased from the sky by Quetzalcoatl and descended to Earth in the form of a great jaguar to devour the giants, the first people. That is why the constellation seems to swoop from its peak in the sky down to the horizon, reenacting this myth every day in the night sky.

My only irritation with this article is a few points where the good doctor strays from proper anthropological neutrality to make disparaging comments about the practice of autosacrifice, and to congratulate the Spaniards on stamping it out. I’ll admit it, I do derive a certain sly pleasure in discussing it here so that it’s not forgotten!

Jaguar Vessel

Jaguar Vessel

Images Of Autosacrifice

I knew I’d come across images of autosacrifice in the codices before! I’ve included two below so you can see how the Aztecs depicted themselves performing ritual bloodletting to benefit the gods.

Tongue Piercing

Page 9, Recto, of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

A worshipper piercing his tongue, p.9R, Codex Telleriano-Remensis

 The image above is taken from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, a Post-Conquest religious text painted by Aztec artists in a style that is a hybrid of Mexican and European art. The worshipper is piercing his tongue and letting the blood flow as a gift to the Teteo. The tool in his hand looks like a pointed stick, rather than a thorn, bone perforator, or obsidian shard, so I believe this painting may be depicting the practice of “drawing straws through the flesh” I mentioned in my article on traditional forms of autosacrifice. If anyone’s got more information on this particular image, I’m all ears.

Numerous Piercings

Page 79, Recto, of the Codex Magliabecchiano

Autosacrifice in the Codex Magliabecchiano, p.79R

This second image comes from the Codex Magliabecchiano, another Post-Conquest codex drawn in a European-influenced style and speaking of religious subjects. This picture shows a group of worshippers doing many different forms of autosacrifice. One is piercing his tongue, while the other is piercing his ear. The green coloration of the objects they’re using to bloodlet makes me wonder if they’re either exaggerated maguey thorns or perforators made of jade. Given the traditional use of maguey thorns for this purpose and the association of jade with blood (as both are exceedingly precious), I could go either way. Again, if anyone knows more, please drop me a comment.

Additionally, we can see that these two worshippers have already completed more rounds of bloodletting than the forms they’re in the middle of in the picture. See the blood on their arms and legs? They’ve either been piercing in those places, or have nicked themselves with shards of obsidian or flint. Incidentally, the bag-like objects slung over their arms are traditional incense pouches. They were often made with paper and beautifully decorated, and would be filled with copal resin to be burned for the gods.

A Brief Survey Of Historical Aztec Autosacrifice

Today I’m going to give a quick overview of the types of autosacrifice performed by the Aztecs during the days of the Empire in order shed some additional light on this very important religious practice.

Traditionally, the Aztecs would collect blood from their ears, lower legs (calf, shin, or just above the ankle), lip, tongue, or penis. The tools and methods used would vary depending on the worshipper’s preferences, the ritual context, and in at least some cases, the instruction of a priest.  The Florentine Codex records the rite of confession to Tlazolteotl, and according to Sahagun, the confessor priest would prescribe required penances to atone for the disclosed sins — these penances often included various forms of bloodletting.

The most common methods of getting the blood were by pricking the flesh with a sharp instrument. Maguey (agave) spines are the tool most frequently mentioned in the historical texts, though slivers of obsidian and special perforators made from a spike-shaped piece of sharpened bone were also used. (Incidentally, Quetzalcoatl, the First Priest, is often shown in the codices holding a bone perforator or two.) From what I’ve read, it seems that maguey spines were particularly associated with piercing the ears and the legs, probably because their large size would be sufficient to draw blood from the legs. The individual would pierce himself or herself in the chosen location, and once the thorns were sufficiently bloodied, would carefully arrange them on a bed of cut fir boughs, or stick them into a ball of dried grass.

Alternatively, the Aztecs would nick their earlobes with an obsidian knife, and the blood would be allowed to drip on the ground, be sprinkled into a fire, or flicked towards the sun, symbolically giving the life-energy to Tonatiuh.

Finally, there was a final type of personal blood offering, that of passing straws or cords through the body. This rather severe form of autosacrifice was a multi-step process. The person would first select a place to pierce. In the texts I’ve read, the tongue seems to be the most common choice for this kind, though the ears, legs, and possibly penis were used as well. (I haven’t the slightest idea of how that last one worked, it’s definitely not something the Spanish friars would’ve recorded the details of!) Then they would poke a hole with a sharp sliver of obsidian, and pull a number of straws or thin cords through the hole. This sacrifice was typically done in a temple or at the side of the road. Wherever it was done, the bloodied straws were left behind as offerings. Interestingly, this practice was apparently only done on days that had a proper sign according to the ritual calendar (tonalpohualli), but I’ve never come across what daysigns those were. Finally, this practice of drawing straws is usually listed as a priestly activity, not something done by ordinary people, though occasionally the nobility appear to have done it as well. Priests who did this often were obvious, as their tongues would be extremely scarred, damaged to the point where they were said to have had difficulty in speaking.

Quetzalcoatl Holding Bone Perforators, Codex Borgia