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.
This is the story of how the Aztecs began as a small band of wild Chichimec nomads and left their original home under the guidance of Huitzilopochtli, searching for their own promised land. In the epic saga focusing specifically on the rise of the Mexica and Huitzilopochtli, this legend comes after the Battle of Coatepec and before the rebellion of Malinalxochitl.
First Steps From Aztlan
As told by Cehualli
Long ago, after the seven tribes had parted ways at Chicomoztoc, the Place of Seven Caves, the Mexica lived as simple nomads in their homeland of Aztlan. They were a wild and hardy clan, not yet educated in the sophisticated ways of the Toltecs, but brave and adventurous. They lived by hunting the wilderness, always on the move in search of new game. In short, they were Chichimecs, barbarian nomads.
One day, in a year of the Flint Knife, one of the teomama, or priests who carried the sacred bundles, received a vision. It was the priest who carried Huitzilopochtli’s bundle (tlaquimilloli), the Teotl who was the special protector of the tribe. Huitzilopochtli told him that He had big plans for them. “Be bold! You will travel south to the unknown lands of Anahuac, to a place where your people will found a great empire. You will be numerous and powerful, feared in war. You will gather rich tribute, land, slaves, and sacrifices in My name.”
“How can this be?” replied the priest in awe. “We’re just a small clan of simple nomads, nothing like the mighty Toltecs of wondrous Tollan where Quetzalcoatl once ruled.”
Huitzilopochtli scoffed at his fear with all the bravado of a daring young warrior eager to test his skills. “Now you are small and weak, but if you follow Me, I will guard and guide you, destroying those who would harm you and leading you to victory. I promise you a sign when you have reached the right place — you will see an eagle perched on a nopal cactus, eating a heart. When you find this spot, build My temple there. Now, take heart and tell My wishes to the chieftains! I am impatient and long to start the journey!”
As the vision faded and the presence of the god left him, the priest went to tell His charge to the chiefs. They consulted among themselves and decided to trust Huitzilopochtli, the Protector of Men. “He’s never led us wrong before,” they said. “Even though these things seem impossible, we will trust Him and migrate south. Perhaps we will die, perhaps we will be a glorious empire after all. We will see!”
They gathered their poor possessions and set out from Aztlan, the White Place, a land to the northwest of the place they would eventually call home, Tenochtitlan. They were the seventh and youngest tribe to leave, but they would one day become the greatest of all, the Mexica-Tenochca, Aztecs.
One of the core cycles of myth belonging to the Aztecs is the multipart epic of how they went from their humble beginning as an obscure band of nomads to the lords of Tenochtitlan and the founders of a great empire, all under Huitzilopochtli’s watchful eye. In honor of the festival months of Quecholli (beginning today) and Panquetzaliztli, the veintanas celebrating the Chichimec past and the god who led them to glory, I will be kicking off a special storytelling event. Over the course of November and first week of December, I will be retelling the highlights of the series of legends that comprise this important saga of the Mexica-Tenochca people.
The basic timeline of the Foundation Cycle starts with the big entrance of Huitzilopochtli onto the scene with the Battle of Coatepec. I’ve already posted that one, and I recommend checking it out if you haven’t read it yet, as it sets the stage for things to come.
Once Huitzilopochtli’s arrived, He picks out the Mexica as His own favorite tribe and calls them to leave their ancestral homelands in the north and begin their migration south, deep into the Anahuac Valley. He promises to guard them and guide them to a new home, a place where they will found a mighty empire. They trust in Him and head out, overcoming both human and divine opponents until they eventually reach the place where the eagle perches on the nopal cactus, eating a heart — the sign that they have finally found their new home… Tenochtitlan.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted a dance video, and I have to crash so I can get up for work in the morning, so I think I’ll kill two birds with one stone here. Speaking of birds (and bad puns), I’ve come across a video of the White Eagle Aztec dance (Ixtakcuauhtli in Nahuatl, Aguila Blanca in Spanish) on YouTube. This one is also courtesy of our friends Miguel Rivera and alexeix. Once again his performance is interesting not due to elaborate regalia, but due to the clear demonstration of the steps and drum rhythm, as well as his spirit and agility.
As to the meaning of this dance, I’m currently sketchy. I’ve seen it referenced as a warriors’ dance, which would go well with the strenuous acrobatics required and the traditional military symbolism of the eagle in traditional Aztec culture. Unfortunately, I can’t say anything conclusive one way or another at this point. I’ll have to keep looking and post an update when I find more. In the meantime, enjoy the dance!