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.
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.
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.
Following up on last week’s post discussing the survival of Precolumbian gladiatorial combat in honor of Tlaloc in Mexico, I’ve got a video today that actually shows part of a Tigre whip match at Zitlala. Now that this activity has come to my attention, it’s something I’ll be watching for videos of in addition to Danza Azteca. It’s interesting getting to actually see the story behind the jaguar mask and contemplate the deeper meaning behind the fighting.
In case you’re wondering, the special rope club used by Tigre fighters in Zitlala are called cuertas. The modern cuerta itself is actually a “friendlier” version of heavier rawhide and stone clubs used previously, which in turn were descended from stone and shell clubs used when the battles may well have been lethal. For obvious reasons, the present-day trend has been away from fatal contests, though the underlying meaning of giving of oneself to Tlaloc for a plentiful harvest endures today among those who remember.
Came across an interesting photograph recently that’s quite interesting, as it shows an aspect of a Pre-Columbian ceremony still surviving today in Zitlala, Mexico.
“A man dressed as a tiger carries a small whip made from rope in Zitlala, Guerrero state, Mexico, Monday, May 5, 2008. Every year, inhabitants of this town participate in a violent ceremony to ask for a good harvest and plenty of rain, at the end of the ceremony men battle each other with their whips while wearing tiger masks and costumess. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)” [Cehualli’s note — “tiger” is a common mistranslation of “tigre,” when the context makes it apparent a jaguar or other large cat is meant.]
Now…there’s a lot more going on here that the photographer doesn’t get into in his note. Specifically, that this is a modern survival of traditional indigenous religious practices.
Why do I think this? Let me explain.
There’s a certain ancient god of rain in Mesoamerica who has traditionally been associated with jaguars… and that’s Tlaloc. In the codices, if you look carefully you can see that He’s always depicted with long, fearsome jaguar fangs. The growl of the jaguar resembles the rolling of distant thunder, and the dangerous power of such an apex predator fits the moody, explosive-tempered Storm Lord quite nicely. The jaguar as a symbol of Tlaloc is a very ancient tradition that appears across the whole of Central America, whether the god is being called Tlaloc, Cucijo, Dzahui, or Chaac.
The whip-club is another hint. Flogging has been done as part of rain ceremonies for Tlaloc for centuries (I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s symbolic of lightning). Additionally, though the photographer didn’t mention this, one knows what happens when people strike each other hard with whips like the one the man in the photo is shown carrying — you bleed. A lot.
In Prehispanic Mexico, one of the important rituals for Xipe Totec, the Flayed Lord, god of spring and new growth, is called “striping.” Striping involved shooting the sacrificial victim with arrows for the purpose of causing his blood to drip and splash on the dry earth below, symbolizing rain that would bring a good harvest. Similar rituals specifically devoted to Tlaloc were also done, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the gladiatorial combat done for Xipe Totec had the same basic idea in mind, sprinkling blood over the ground done to call the rain.
The next part is due to my good friend Shock and her impressive knack for research. While we were discussing this photo, Shock directed me to an excellent article about this phenomenon known as “Tigre Boxing” that still exists all throughout Mexico today. It even discusses this specific form of battling with whips in Zitlala that this photograph is of. I highly recommend checking it out, as it’s loaded with more information about the surviving practice of gladiatorial combat for rain, complete with many excellent photos of the jaguar masks, sculptures, and even videos of the combat!
Sitting here at my computer tonight, musing on an important, if not always comfortable, aspect of traditional Aztec thought and its implications. Namely, the concept of “human corn” and the natural humility flowing from that point of view.
“Human Corn” — What Do You Mean?
“Human Corn” — it’s an odd phrase at first glance, especially to those of us raised in a modern, Euro-American society. Boiled down to its essence, it means “people are food.” Food for what? For everything, really. In traditional Aztec thought, humans are food for the gods and food for the Earth.
In his article “Cosmic Jaws,” Dr. David Carrasco notes a saying that survives among some indigenous tribes today in the region, “We eat the Earth, and the Earth eats us.” The Earth was said to have been created from the ever-hungry primordial monster-goddess Cipactli when Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, transformed into great serpents, squeezed her in half and created the land and the sky from her remains. In exchange for housing and feeding us, She eats us when we die. When we eat of the land, we literally eat death and begin racking up a debt to Cipactli (later honored with the name Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Lord) for Her bounty.
Cipactli/Tlaltecuhtli isn’t the only deity depicted as eating people. Most famously, Tonatiuh the Sun received the heart sacrifice as food and drink, and Tlacaelel likened Nahua soldiers to tasty warm tortillas, hot from the griddle, destined for the table of the gods. Numerous prayers and songs, some recorded by Sahagun in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex, describe the sacrificed warrior entering the jaws of Tlaltecuhtli, and praise his blessed state as he goes to feed the cosmos.
Other prayers and huehuetlatolli (moral speeches) explicitly describe humans as corn. During the festival month of Tititl, young plants and young children were stretched to encourage them to grow tall and healthy — and for the same purpose. Youthful warriors were likened to the corn god Centeotl, and the strong linkage between corn/crop and war imagery in Aztec religion has long fascinated and puzzled scholars. (See works by David Carrasco and Kay Almere Read, for example.) Over and over again, we see the idea of “being food” as a central part of the Aztec conception of what it means to be human.
The Implications of “Human Corn”
So, what does it mean to incorporate “being food” into the human identity? Well… it means a very different outlook on our place in the world from what a lot of us were probably raised with. It means we’re not exempt from the natural cycle of eating and being eaten that the natural world runs on, and that this is the ordinary, proper mode of things. It’s no curse or aberration that we’re subject to birth and death, it’s merely part of our nature. It also means we’re not the center of the universe — if the Earth is a garden, we’re a crop planted in it, not the gardener. There’s no analogue to the story of Eden and the Abrahamic view of the dominance of humanity over the natural world here.
It also means humility. If we’re not the capstone of creation, the reason for the whole show, it means we need to get over ourselves. We’re just a part of the greater whole, sometimes likened to a household in traditional Nahua thought. No part is indispensable, from plants to animals, from humans to gods. Every being has its part to play, and that should be honored and acknowledged, but in its proper measure. Perhaps instead of whispering to ourselves, “Remember, thou art mortal!” as the Romans did, we should think, “Remember, thou art corn!” when we’re tempted to hubris.
Finally, it also imparts a certain amount of meaning and purpose to miquiztli (death). When we die, we nourish life and we pay the debt we owe to the Earth for sustaining us. Depending on your understanding of the gods and how the universe works, this can be interpreted in many, many ways as best suits your metaphysical and theological perspective. Whether interpreted poetically, mystically, or literally, the idea of “human corn” still holds valuable meaning in a modern setting.
As a bonus, if you would like to read a bit more about Aztec funeral practices and thoughts on death, I came across a brief article on the subject by David Iguaz that you might enjoy. Click HERE to read it in html, or HERE to download the PDF.