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.
*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.
Danza Azteca: Aguila Blanca
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.
Courtesy link to alexeix’s page on YouTube for this danza video.
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!
Danza Azteca — Another Aztec Fire Dance
It’s been a while since I’ve posted an Aztec dance video, so I thought I’d share another good one I’ve found. This one is another Fire Dance (Fuego), but quite a bit different from the first one I posted back in April. This dance was performed at the 2007 Evergreen State Fair in Monroe, Washington.
(Direct link to Sazqwatch’s YouTube page of this video)
This version of the dance is also performed by a single danzante, a fellow who’s incredibly daring. Notice how several times during the danza he nearly crouches atop the flame! You’ll spot him carrying a small gourd rattle throughout this performance, which is a traditional instrument associated with ritual dance. Several of the gods of dance, such as Techalotl the squirrel-like Teotl, are depicted in the codices carrying rattles, and dancers impersonating these deities at festivals will wield them as well.
Danza Azteca — Solo Dance Of Tezcatlipoca
I’ve had a long day today and am very tired, too much running back and forth across the state, so today’s update will be a quick one. There will be a big new article coming soon though, I had plenty of time while sitting on the train to plan out a nice big feature on Aztec ethics and moral worldview. Watch for those two in the near future. In the meantime, I have another nice danza video for you to enjoy, courtesy of a YouTuber by the handle of Alexeix.
This particular video is a solo performance by a young danzante named Miguel Rivera. He’s performing the dance of Tezcatlipoca, the mercurial “Smoking Mirror.”
This particular video is interesting not because of elaborate costuming or intricate instrumentation, but because Señor Rivera is demonstrating the full sequence of dance steps and movements in great detail, and you can clearly hear the specific drum rhythm for Tezcatlipoca being played in the background. Thus, for those of you who are interested in learning some of the traditional dances and/or drum rhythms, his video should be a useful source of information.
Incidentally, if you listen, you’ll hear a rhythmic jingling sound that’s in time to his movements. It’s coming from the “bells” around his ankles. Those “bells” are actually a specific type of seed pod/nut shell that is native to Mexico. When dried out and sewn to leather or cloth wraps that are worn around the lower legs, they make that beautifully distinctive jingling sound. I’d tell you what they’re called, but I’m completely blanking on it at the moment. I’ll update this post with it when I remember. (UPDATE: they’re called ayoyotes.) Anyway, you’ll hear that sound in practically every Aztec dance recording out there, and now you know what makes it.
There shouldn’t be an issue with this embedded video going dead like the Quetzalcoatl one did for a little while, since it doesn’t look like the person who uploaded it on YouTube is opposed to embedding. (You can visit their YouTube page for this video by clicking HERE.) If it does cut out, just post a comment and let me know so I can fix it.
Danza Azteca — Quetzalcoatl’s Descent to Mictlan
Here’s the video of the Aztec dance performance of part of the story of Quetzalcoatl’s descent to Mictlan, the Land of the Dead, to retrieve the precious bones so that humans can live again. It’s a nighttime performance, which is a perfect fit for the setting. Mictlan was described as a place of perpetual darkness, coldness, and night. The lighting is mostly from the bonfire and a few lamps, so it’s very moody looking and the shadows and light accentuate the motions and costumes of the danzantes.
Go HERE to watch the dance, as YouTube seems to have yanked the plug on embedding this particular video.
Quetzalcoatl is portrayed by the dancer in the birdlike, beaked mask who’s carrying the serpent, while Mictlantecuhtli is played by the dancer with the lion’s-mane-like headdress with a skull in the center of the fan of feathers. Mictlantecuhtli’s servants are creatively portrayed by children in skeletal costumes. You’re probably wondering “Why kids? That’s not scary!” I think they’re echoing the myths that portray Tlaloc’s helpers, the Tlaloque, as miniature versions of the goggle-eyed Rain God. If Tlaloc’s assistants are mini-Tlalocs, then why not have the Lord of the Dead’s be miniature Mictlantecuhtlis? Either way, it’s a nice casting choice.
Danza Azteca — An Aztec Fire Dance
Got an important meeting tomorrow, so I can’t write a long post at this moment, but I do have a little something cool to make up for it. I love to hunt down videos of traditional Mesoamerican dance (danza Azteca, danza Chichimeca, etc.). I found a particularly good one on YouTube not long ago, and I thought I’d share it. It’s an Aztec dance that honors Xiuhtecuhtli, the Lord of Fire.
By the way, take a close look at the brazier that the lead danzante is dancing around — it’s in the shape of Huehueteotl the “Old, Old God,” the elderly guise of Xiuhtecuhtli. That’s an ancient style of making a brazier, and an appropriate choice — after all, part of Huehueteotl’s regalia is a brazier perched atop his head!
Introduction To The “What” Of Sacrifice
As I said in my previous post on the “why” of sacrifice, I’d be writing one soon on the “what.” Next time, it’ll be “how and when,” and we’ll be good to go on the basics of the cornerstone ritual in worshipping the Teteo.
The people of the Anahuac valley offered a wide variety of different goods and services to the gods. Most of them can be fit into three quick and dirty categories: blood offerings, property offerings, and services.
Blood offerings are the best known, and they come in several forms. There’s the classic heart extraction and other types of lethal human sacrifice, of course, but no one’s going to be doing any of those, so don’t even think about it. More important to modern-day practitioners, people would offer small amounts of their own blood to the gods. This is called autosacrifice, and everyone would do it, priest, king, and commoner alike. Finally, the last type of blood sacrifice is animal sacrifice. Quail were the most common choice, though I have found references to turkey hens and specific festivals where snakes, lizards, toads, and other small animals were offered. Anyway, quail offerings were mostly done by the priests and nobility, partially because meat was scarce and expensive in the days before the current style of large-scale industrial farming.
The second major category of offerings are those of property. The Aztecs gave a dazzling array of material goods to the Teteo, ranging from food and drink to clothing, incense, and art. Incense was the backbone of property offerings, and was burned for the pleasure of the gods very frequently. The particular type used was a resin made from tree sap, and is called copal. Copal comes in many different types, and has a wonderful sweet smell. I encourage you to check out one of the external links I have to an entire article on copal. Everyone would burn it, and its use wasn’t restricted to particular festivals or the like. Similarly, people would often offer flowers, and they weren’t just for the godesses. The gods like them too!
Different foods were offered, such as tortillas, tamales, amaranth dough cakes, and fresh vegetables like corn or chia. Drinks were also provided for the gods, especially a liquor called pulque or octli. Sometimes people would give well-made articles of clothing to the gods to show their devotion. Amate paper was often burned for the gods. This may sound strange to many people, as most of us in the West these days don’t exactly think of paper as sacred. Not so among the Aztecs. Paper was rare, expensive, and hard to make, so it was highly valued and reserved for religious use and the writing of sacred painted books, called Codices today. (FAMSI has a lot of them online that you can look at, check them out HERE.)
Speaking of rare, expensive goods, artwork and other related precious objects round out the list of property offerings. Excavations in the remains of the Templo Mayor (a.k.a. Huey Teocalli in Nahuatl, Grand Temple in English) in Mexico City have uncovered caches of beautiful art that were apparently given to the gods. The objects range from jewelry to statues to feathercrafts and harder to describe things. So if you have an artistic streak, this might be a wonderful way for you to make offerings. Beautiful feathers and precious stones (especially turquoise and jade) were also prized as offerings.
The last category is services, offering by doing stuff. Sweeping and cleaning was actually a devotional activity back in the day, as it was a form of clearing away chaos and decay. All sacred spaces were routinely swept, whether they were the imperial temples or the humble household shrine. Finally, music, dance, song, and poetry were often done for the enjoyment of the Teteo, and certain instruments were considered to be favored by certain deities. For example, the conch shell trumpet was linked to Quetzalcoatl, the flute was Tezcatlipoca’s preferred instrument, and I’ve seen a reference or two to the huehuetl, the big drum, being Huitzilopochtli’s instrument. Music and dance were very important ways to worship in Mesoamerica, and many of the festivals would culminate in most of the town gathering to dance and sing. Sacred dance is still done today, either as worship or for secular reasons of love of culture. Today it’s called danza in Mexico, and if you hit YouTube or GoogleVideo you can find recordings of some of the danzantes performing. Very beautiful!
That’s the end of this article exploring the kinds of things that were traditionally sacrificed. Next time, I’ll get down to discussing how and when to do some specific kinds of offerings.