Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Posts tagged “costumbre

Two Aztec Censer Photos

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.

Aztec Ladle Censer

Image 055 in Rightstream’s Flickr photostream, photograph taken by Lin Mei in 2006

Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 License

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.

Tlexictli Brazier

Image 001 in Rightstream’s Flickr photostream, photograph taken by Lin Mei in 2006

Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 License


Censers and Incense of Mexico and Central America

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.

Courtesy link to Omeyocanze’s page on YouTube for this danza video.

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*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.


Eduard Seler’s Commentary On Codex Vaticanus 3773 (Vaticanus B) — Vol. 1

Back on January 29th of this year, I spotted on GoogleBooks the full text of Volume 2 of Eduard Seler’s commentary on Codex Vaticanus 3773, otherwise known as Vaticanus B.  I said I’d be watching for Google to finish scanning Volume 1 and post it… and guess what, it’s finally up in its entirety.  It can be read online, or the full text can be downloaded as a PDF. Volume 1 is on the obverse (front) side of the scroll-like book, while Volume 2 is about the reverse (back).  I’ve also updated my Codices page with the link to Volume 1.

Thanks Google!

Click HERE to read Volume 1 of Eduard Seler’s commentary on Codex Vaticanus 3773

or

Click HERE to read Volume 2

Quetzalcoatl and Mictlantecuhtli

Quetzalcoatl and Mictlantecuhtli Over Cipactli/Tlaltecuhtli (Codex Vaticanus B, Plate 76)


Temperance

After a round of reading, digesting, and refreshing, the brain is revitalized and it’s time to get back to work posting.  I’ve been wanting to start tackling Nahua ethics in earnest the past couple of months and have finally settled on an approach I hope works, starting with the cardinal virtues and moving from there.  Previously I discussed the cardinal virtue of charity, and today I’m going to write about the virtue that appears to me to be the lynchpin of the whole system — temperance.

Temperance Defined

I define temperance here reasonably closely to the traditional Greek concept of temperance, or sophrosyne.  In a nutshell, this concept traditionally meant moderation in word, deed, and thought, guided by self-knowledge.  The Delphine “Nothing in excess” and the Roman counterpart, “Moderation in all things” are well-known mottoes expressing this ideal.  There is evidence that the Aztecs conceived of temperance in a similarly broad sense, and I think it reasonable to include the role of self-knowledge as a part of their concept. The most direct way to find and learn about the Nahua virtue of temperance is to go to the huehuetlatolli we have left to us in the wake of the Conquest.  Many of these ethical speeches touch on this topic, and I’ve picked out some particularly useful examples from Book 6 of the Florentine Codex to discuss next.

“Moderation In All Things” In Mesoamerica

“On earth it is a time for care, it is a place for caution.  Behold the word; heed and guard it, and with it take your way of life, your works.  On earth we live, we travel along a mountain peak.  Over here there is an abyss, over there is an abyss.  If you go over here, or if you go over there, you will fall in.  Only in the middle does one go, one live.”

The Florentine Codex, Book 6, Ch.19, p.101

(Dibble & Anderson translation, copyright University of Utah, used without permission)

This beautiful and evocative speech gives us a taste of the Nahua take on temperance.  The speaker, a noble father addressing his daughter, emphasizes the critical importance of moderation.  The peak and the abyss are traditional metaphors for disaster in Aztec rhetoric, and illustrate the dire consequences of going to wild extremes.  This admonishment is very general, and for good reason, as this principle of moderation is to guide all actions, from personal demeanor to concrete practicalities.  For example, youths are instructed speak calmly and clearly, without either excessive ornamentation or crudity (p.100).  They are to carry themselves tranquilly, avoiding both excessive pride and excessive humility, disdaining hate and favoring a joyful demeanor, but knowing the value of well-timed and appropriate anger (Id. at 100-101).   People are to travel purposefully and prudently, neither rushing about restlessly nor strolling around pompously (Id.).  However, they are to be wise and know when haste is appropriate (Id.). And of course, a healthy mean in eating, recreation, sex, and clothing are also to be pursued.

To Excess — When Appropriate

Even these quick examples show that Nahua temperance wasn’t just a robotic defaulting to a middling response regardless of the circumstances.  Disruptive or more extreme behavior can be good as well, so long as it’s practiced appropriately.  This last point is absolutely crucial, as it shows the underpinning of temperance in Mesoamerica is balance.  More disruptive or extreme behavior isn’t necessarily bad, it’s only bad when misused.  Returning to an above example, anger isn’t one of the Seven Deadly Sins or one of the Three Poisons here.  Sometimes its the right thing to feel and express.

A second example is the quaquachictin or Otomi warriors.  These warriors were men so recklessly fierce they were known to throw themselves into battle with a berserk fury devoid of planning or restraint.  Described as “wicked but brave…furious in battle” these men exemplified a virtue (bravery) gone to excess, becoming a vice that denied them the right to exercise leadership over others (Id. at 110).  Yet, instead condemning them as hopeless reprobates, their foolhardy ferocity was channeled into an appropriate avenue as awe-inspiring shock troops.  Thus the virtue that turned into a vice was turned back into a virtue by putting it into a context where it could benefit society.  Dr. Burkhart described this something like “taking this violent, chaotic strength that otherwise could have destroyed society and channeling it into a form that would protect it” in Slippery Earth.  (Excuse my horrible paraphrasing, I can’t recall the exact point in the book where she discusses this.)

This balancing of extremes and skillful application of them in the appropriate context is a thread that runs throughout the entire Aztec worldview to my eye.  Growth and death, eating and being eaten, chaos and order, etc.  Nearly everything in this system links opposites that struggle in creative (and destructive… and creative again) tension.  The great rivalry between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl is the same battle writ in the persons of the gods themselves.

The Role of Self-Knowledge

While this segment is a little more speculative than the others, I think it’s reasonable to see a parallel of the Hellenic inclusion of self-knowledge in temperance when looking at the evidence.The need to identify time, place, and manner for applying varying levels of moderation points to a need to understand oneself and one’s place in a greater context.  If a person doesn’t know their own nature and how they fit into society and the cosmos, they can’t possibly apply temperance intelligently and effectively.  It also requires an understanding of how opposing forces interact, balance, and unbalance themselves and the world.

This applies in both the mundane and the metaphysical.  If you don’t know how others think and view you, you won’t know if anger will prevent or cause contempt.  Looking to a metaphysical example, I wonder if the core message underlying the story of Quetzalcoatl’s flight from Tollan was really about a failing of temperance.  In the story, His soft-hearted refusal to make the “human payment” (an excess of affection) would have had the effect of jeopardizing the fabric of the cosmos.  Viewed in this light, Tezcatlipoca’s seemingly cruel attack on His brother’s happy kingdom was the best thing to do, for it restored the balance and ensured the continuation of existence for all.

Conclusion: The Power Of Balance

This conceptualization of temperance as a balancing of extremes as well an endorsement of the median is incredibly robust and life-affirming.  This built-in flexibility and sensitivity to context avoids the rigid, unrealistic, and frankly inhuman dogmatism of many other systems.  It guides the individual through difficult behavioral choices without eliminating the need for reason or leading her/him astray with a one-size-fits-all rule that doesn’t really fit at all.  Additionally, I argue that it leads to a healthier individual and society.  Impossible standards breed hypocracy, dysfunctional psychological states, and needless suffering.  Realistic standards offer everyone a fair chance to live up to them, and a just reason for chastisement where violated. Finally, this virtue of temperance is a light in the darkness, with all that implies.  It’s a guiding principle to follow, but determining exactly where to puts one’s feet on the path it draws us down requires us to think carefully and act responsibly if we don’t want to veer off into the ravine on either side.


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.


Malinalxochitl

The next story in the Mexican founding saga tells of the tyranny of Huitzilopochtli’s sister, Malinalxochitl (“Grass Flower”).  This myth follows after “First Steps From Aztlan” and “Leaving Coatepec,” and sets the stage for the birth of Copil and the further difficulties the fledgling Mexica face.

Malinalxochitl

As told by Cehualli

It had been some time since the Mexica had left their ancestral homeland of Aztlan, and they were wandering in the wilds of Michoacan, following Huitzilopochtli’s dream.  But the Portentous One wasn’t the only divinity accompanying them — His sister, Malinalxochitl, had come with them.  She was beautiful both in form and manner, graceful and elegant.  She was also a powerful sorceress, as she was a Huitznahua woman, one of the stars come to walk among men.  She could drive men mad, shake a river from its course, or strike her enemies dead with a glance.  For a time she ruled them on their wanderings, her flesh and blood guidance complementing unseen Huitzilopochtli’s directions in dreams and her magic a formidable force added to His strength.

Eventually, however, Malinalxochitl grew arrogant and tyrannical, forgetting her duty to guard her brother’s tribe.  She began to torment the Mexica in Huitzilopochtli’s physical absence.  She even forced them to worship her as a goddess on pain of death.

“How wonderful this is!” she thought to herself as she eyed the frightened people as they hurried away from yet another city that had grown unfriendly to them.  “They obey my every whim, and my brother stays silent.  Perhaps He’s abandoned them, or a rival god struck Him down while He roamed ahead.  After what He did to Coyolxauhqui, it would be a fitting end for Him.”

The priests and the people, however, secretly prayed to their silent protector.  “Huitzilopochtli!  Your sister has become corrupt, and instead of being a torch, a light for your people, she’s become a deadly tyrant!  Please save us!”

One night, Huitzilopochtli came to the eldest priest in his dreams.  “How dare my sister do this!  And using sorcery against My people – !” He raged.  “Very well then, we will get rid of her.  When she sleeps tonight, slip away and leave her behind.  If she wishes to behave like a treacherous scorpion, let her be alone like one.” The priest nearly wept with joy as the answer to his prayers.  “However, you must promise Me something — you must not follow her heart and copy her charms and spells.  That’s a coward’s way of fighting, and I won’t stand for my people to be seen that way.  No, instead you will win with courage and skill at arms!  That’s My way.”

The priest agreed, and when he awoke he told the god’s words to the rest of the tribe.  When it had grown dark, they packed up and slipped away into the night, leaving Malinalxochitl behind.

When she awoke, Malinalxochitl wailed in betrayed anger.  “Huiztilopochtli, you dog!  I’m not through with You or Your wretched people!  My sister and I will be avenged.”  Vowing to make them pay, the scorned Huitznahua woman went to make the nearby city of Malinalco her own and to bide her time to strike.

Fountain Grass Flower, Photo by Giligone (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License)
Fountain Grass Flower, Photo by Giligone (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License)

Eduard Seler’s Commentary On Codex Vaticanus 3773 (Vaticanus B)

I just had an incredible stroke of luck.  I just discovered an English translation of Dr. Eduard Seler’s commentary on the Codex Vaticanus 3773, a.k.a. Codex Vaticanus B.  Well, half of it anyway.  The complete English text of the second volume of Seler’s commentary is available to read and download as a PDF via GoogleBooks.   This volume is devoted to the reverse side of the codex.  Volume 1 is about the obverse side.  I dredged Google and determined that they’ve scanned Volume 1 but don’t yet have it available to read.  I hope they’re planning on making it fully available soon, and not doing something sleazy like keeping it locked down.  Might be a good idea to petition them for this one if you’re feeling frisky.  I’ll be watching for it to go up at any rate.

Speculation about Google’s intentions aside, I’m pleased to be able to point you to an excellent commentary by one of the premier luminaries of Mesoamerican religious studies.  A quick link to the book is below, and I’ve updated my Codices page with this link as well.  Incidentally, this volume includes a complete black and white scan of the codex as Appendix A, with Seler’s notes.  Visually not as nice as viewing the high-resolution color scans on FAMSI, but quite useful.

Click HERE to read Vol. 2 of Dr. Eduard Seler’s Commentary on Codex Vaticanus 3773

UPDATE 9/21/09:  Google’s posted Vol. 1 now!  Click HERE to get it too!

Eagle, Serpent, & Rabbit, Plate 27 of Codex Vaticanus B
Eagle, Serpent, & Rabbit, Plate 27 of Codex Vaticanus B