Among the populace of the Aztec empire, the line between religion and magic often blurred in day to day life. While the priestly class held a great amount of power in mediating between the people and the gods, and by extension had a powerful influence on directing orthodoxy, folk practices flourished within the family household. One of these was the practice of offering prayers and desirable substances (often copal incense, tobacco, and sometimes blood) to the lesser spiritual beings inhabiting everything from the trees to the crops to the tools by which people lived. While these animistic entities were less grand than the mighty cosmic lords like Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl, with their broad power over the universe and the state, these local spirits had their own gifts. This influence carried extra weight for the humble individual due to its intimate proximity — while Tezcatlipoca’s wrath could lay waste to the entire kingdom, the fury of a small farmer’s sole cornfield could prove just as deadly for that individual as his livelihood dried up.
In this post, I’ll share with you a set of three of these short folk prayer-spells, collected by the inquisitor Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón in his “Treatise on Heathen Superstitions” in the early 17th century. These incantations were intended to guard a sleeper against evildoers invading his or her home in the night, and to express gratitude in the morning for a safe rest. Note that the supplicant in these prayers is actually praying to the spirits of their bed and their pillow, rather than a more familiar high god like Tlaloc. Incantations are quoted from the excellent English translation of Alarcón by J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig. Incidentally, if you can read Spanish, I found a full text copy of the Paso y Tronsco fascimile online at the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, viewable by clicking HERE. Commentary about each prayer is my own material.
Let it be soon, O my jaguar mat, you who lie opening your mouth toward the four directions. You are very thirsty and also hungry. And already the villain who makes fun of people, the one who is a madman, is coming. What is it that he will do to me? Am I not a pauper? I am a worthless person. Do I not go around suffering poverty in the world?
The supplicant here calls upon his bed (“jaguar mat”), a mat made of reeds and palm fronds to protect him from the nocturnal sorcerer, the nahual. This particular flavor of witch was greatly feared throughout the region due to his ability to control minds, paralyze, and shapeshift. He was believed to often indulge in robbery like a cat burglar, breaking into homes in the dead of night to bewitch and rob his prey. Sometimes, he would violate and kill his victims. Interestingly, Quetzalcoatl was noted by Sahagún in the Florentine Codex to be the patron of this supernatural lawbreaker.
The structure of this prayer is double-layered — the supplicant begins with calling on the spirit of his bed to protect him, but then shifts to make a declaration of his extreme poverty and worthlessness as a robbery target. Perhaps he had in mind a subtle defense here — rather than asking the spirit to try to destroy or disempower the witch, which might be unlikely to work as they were considered to be quite strong, he’s asking it to trick the burglar by convincing him that there’s nothing of value in this house, better go somewhere else.
The bed itself is described in an interesting way. It reaches out towards the four directions, thus anchoring it very firmly in physical space, but also possibly linking it to the greater spiritual ecosystem, as a common verbal formula of invoking the whole community of the divine is to call to all the directions and present them with offerings. It also reminds me of the surface of the earth (tlalticpac) which similarly fans out as a flat plane towards the cardinal directions, making the bed a tiny replica of the earthly world. The reference to gaping mouths, hunger, and thirst acknowledges that the spirit of the bed has its own needs and implies that the speaker will attend to them. In the Aztec world, nothing’s free, and a favor requested is a favor that will have to be paid for. Alarcón doesn’t note what offering is given to the mat here, but in other invocations of household objects recorded in the book, tobacco and copal smoke come up repeatedly.
Let it be soon, O my jaguar seat, O you who are wide-mouthed towards the four directions. Already you are very thirsty and also hungry.
This prayer is the companion of the one discussed above, except directed to the sleeper’s pillow (the “jaguar seat”). Incidentally, you might be wondering why these two objects are named “jaguar.” Andrews and Hassig speculate in their commentary that it may have been inspired by the mottled appearance of the reeds making up the bedding. I think it may be a way of acknowledging that these simple, seemingly-mundane objects house a deeper, supernatural power. The jaguar is a creature of the earth, of the night, and sorcery in Mesoamerican thinking, and in particular is a symbol of Tezcatlipoca. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me that a nocturnal symbol is linked to things so intimately tied to sleep and being interacted with in the context of their magical power. The adjective “jaguar” also appears elsewhere in Aztec furniture as the “jaguar seat” of the kings and nobles, which is often used as a symbol of lordly authority. The gods themselves are sometimes drawn sitting on these jaguar thrones, including in the Codex Borbonicus (click to view). Once again, another possible link to ideas of supernatural power and rulership — authority invoked to control another supernatural actor, the dangerous witch.
O my jaguar mat, did the villain perhaps come or not? Was he perhaps able to arrive? Was he perhaps able to arrive right up to my blanket? Did he perhaps raise it, lift it up?
This final incantation was to be recited when the sleeper awoke safely. He muses about what might have happened while he slumbered. Maybe nothing happened… or maybe a robber tried to attack, coming so close as to peek under the blanket at the defenseless sleeper, but was turned away successfully by the guardian spirits invoked the previous night. Either way, the speaker is safe and sound in the rosy light of dawn, alive to begin another day.
Ruiz, . A. H., Andrews, J. R., & Hassig, R. (1984). Treatise on the heathen superstitions that today live among the Indians native to this New Spain, 1629. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. pp.81-82
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.
While browsing links and foraging for data, I came across an excellent pair of photos on Flickr that tie in nicely with yesterday’s post on pre-Conquest Aztec censers. Both photographs were taken by Lin Mei in 2006 at the Museo del Templo Mayor (Museum of the Grand Temple) and adjacent excavation site of the Huey Teocalli itself in Mexico City. They are hosted on Rightstream’s Flickr photostream as a part of his Templo Mayor set of images. I recommend taking a look at the full set in addition to the two I’m highlighting here, as the photos are very good quality and provide a good look at many of the fascinating examples of Mexica art and architecture uncovered by the Templo Mayor archaeology team. My thanks to Leo and Lin Mei for generously allowing their work to be shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
The first photo is a beautiful example of a ladle-type censer, intended to be carried in the hand and used to incense places, people, sacred images, etc. It’s the design Walter Hough described as being derived from a basic tripod incense burner design, where one leg is elongated into a handle, producing a ladle form.
The second image is a picture of the large, stationary stone brazier Hough described as being used for burning incense, offerings, ritual implements and paraphernalia, and as vessels for sacred temple fires that were never allowed to go out. The popochcomitl in the photo below is beautifully preserved, and a great amount of sharp, clear detail is apparent. Look closely at the narrow waist of the hourglass shape, and you’ll see the belt-like knotted bow I discussed yesterday. It’s a much better example than the grainy turn of the century photograph available in the linked article. You’ll also notice a beautiful monolithic serpent head nestled between the two braziers. The alternating brazier – serpent – brazier pattern continues over large sections of the stepped pyramid. It’s a logical motif when one remembers that the Grand Temple, at least on the southern side where Huitzilopochtli’s sanctuary was, is a man-made replica of the Coatepetl (Snake Mountain) where Huitzilopochtli was born and defeated the jealous Southern Stars. If you’d like to read that story, you can click HERE for my retelling of that exciting narrative.
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.
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!
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!
I’m in a “How To” mood tonight. You may have noticed copal comes up a lot on this blog, and been interested in experiencing it yourself, but don’t have a place you can burn it with charcoal due to smoke or fire hazard. What to do? Well, I had the same issue myself, and came up with a quick and dirty incense stove design that charcoal-free and smokeless when used. For those who want to give it a try, I thought I’d finally upload photos and some crappy MS Paint blueprints.
Sure, you can buy premade stoves and that guarantees the product doesn’t suck, but they’re not always cheap, and I’ve never seen one that I liked. Building your own can be done for like $5, even less if you are good at scavenging stuff, and you can make it look like you want. Mine is made with a heavy black marble jar that’s quite pretty, and completely hides the jury-rigged wire holder and foil cup hanging inside. When it’s in use, you just see the glow of the hidden candleflame gleaming on the lip, and the incense vapor rising out of the top.
Incense stoves get hot and involve fire. This makes them DANGEROUS. Be VERY careful when building and using your stove, as you can burn yourself, your stuff, your pets, etc. if something goes wrong. These blueprints are only a very rough outline of how I built my own stove and are not intended to be professional instructions on how to build incense stoves. There is no associated guarantee of workmanlike quality, fitness for a particular purpose, or safety in either the blueprints or in the end product if you choose to build a stove after looking at these images. It can’t be guaranteed 100% safe, it involves an open flame. Basically, if you start a fire and hurt yourself/others/property, I am not responsible. You’ve been warned.
- 1 Container — This can be a jar, a soup can, basically anything with an open top that won’t burn. Theoretically, you could even just have an open frame made of wire or something that would support the incense cup, though that would be pretty ugly. It needs to be wide enough to hold the candle, and shallow enough to allow enough air to sustain the flame. Remember, copal vapor is heavy and will sink, and it can smother a small flame if it gets trapped densely enough around it.
- 1 Piece of Wire — A length of thin wire, about 6 inches long. I used copper as it tolerates heat well and was what I had available, though brass would also be an excellent choice. Whatever wire you use, it needs to be flexible enough to easily twist and bend, but strong enough to support its own weight and the weight of a nugget of copal in the foil cup.
- 1 Sheet of Aluminum Foil — This will be folded into the cup where the resin nugget will go. You’ll want a roughly a 3 inch by 3 inch square if you want to make the cup single-layered, which will maximize the heat transferred to the incense, increasing the strength of the scent.
- 1 Candle — A small candle, preferably a tealight or votive candle. Must be unscented, or you’ll have its smell dueling with the scent of copal. Disgusting. Need unscented tealights? Check Bed Bath & Beyond, I’ve seen huge bags of 100 for about $5. I’ve seen them in CVS convenience stores here in Boston in the bulk bags too, weirdly enough.
- Insulating/Supporting Material — Sand, rocks, the shell of a spent tealight candle, anything that won’t burn and can support the weight of a candle on top. You need to put this under the candle both to protect the surface below it from the heat and to adjust the candle’s height.
Here are the rough diagrams for building an incense stove like mine, with my notes on the process included in the graphic. +1 for crappy MS Paint drawings…
Finally, since making the cup and the wire holder for the cup are the hard part, I’ve included some photos below of my cup and holder in their assembled state. The foil is basically just pushed down through the wire hoop and the edges squished into gripping the wire. Be very careful to hold it up to the light to check for pinholes or cracks, the foil is delicate and tears easily.
I came across an interesting article by Alan R. Sandstrom on FAMSI the other night. It is a summary of his observation of a modern Huaxtec ceremony honoring one of the Tlaloque, a rain spirit named Apanchanej (literally, “Water Dweller”). This festival took place in 2001 on Postectli, a mountain in the Huasteca region of Mexico.
A bit of background — the Huaxtecs are an ancient people, neighbors of the Aztecs. Like the Aztecs, they spoke and still speak Nahuatl, making them one of the numerous Nahua peoples. To this day they still live in their traditional home, one of the more rugged and mountainous sections of Mexico. They have retained more of their indigenous culture than some of the other nations that survived the Conquest due to their remoteness and the rough terrain that inhibited colonization. This includes many pre-Conquest religious traditions, even some sacrificial practices.
To read the short article summarizing Sandstrom’s experiences at the ceremony:
If you would like to read the article in English, please go HERE.
Si desea leer el artículo en español, por favor haga clic AQUI.
Some Highlights Related To Modern Practices
This article includes discussion of several details of particular interest to those interested in learning from the living practice of traditional religion. Of special note are photographs of the altar at the shrine on Postectli, including explanation of the symbols and objects on it (photograph 12). Also, the practice of creating and honoring sacred paper effigies of the deities involved in the ceremony is explored in some depth. Paper has traditionally been a sacred material among the Nahua tribes, and paper representations of objects in worship is a very old practice indeed. Additionally, there is some detail on tobacco and drink offerings, as well as the use of music and the grueling test of endurance inherent in the extended preparation and performance of this ritual.
Contemporary Animal Sacrifice
A key part of the article’s focus is on the modern practice of animal sacrifice and blood offerings that survive among the Huaxteca today. These forms of worship have by no means been stamped out among the indigenous people of Mexico, as Sandstrom documents. (Yes, there are photographs in case you are wondering — scholarly, not sensationalistic.) Offering turkeys is something that has been done since long before the Conquest, and from what I have read they remain a popular substitute for humans in Mexico. It’s fitting if you know the Nahuatl for turkey — if I remember right, it’s pipil-pipil, which translates to something like “the little nobles” or “the children.” If I’m wrong, someone please correct me, as I don’t have my notes on the Nahuatl for this story handy at the moment. They got that name because in the myth of the Five Suns, the people of one of the earlier Suns were thought to have turned into turkeys when their age ended in a violent cataclysm, and they survive in this form today. I doubt the connection would have been lost on the Aztecs when offering the birds.
To wrap things up, Sandstrom’s article was a lucky find and is a valuable glimpse into modern-day indigenous practice . I strongly recommend stopping by FAMSI and checking it out, as my flyby overview of it can’t possibly contain everything of interest. On one last detail, I strongly encourage you to read the footnotes on this one — a lot more valuable info is hidden in those.