Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

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Update: Updated & Expanded Links For The Cantares Mexicanos & the Ballads of the Lords of New Spain

Sharp-eyed reader M.P. spotted some changes on the University of Texas websites for the Ballads of the Lords of New Spain and the Cantares Mexicanos.  Thanks to their timely alert, I’ve updated my links to the full texts and bonus materials for the two foundational collections of Aztec poetry and song.  As an extra stroke of good fortune, since my original post they’ve added the Nahuatl-English Dictionary & Concordance volume that originally accompanied the print edition of the Cantares Mexicanos.  Just like the main volume, it is also freely available as a downloadable PDF.

Click HERE to check out the updated post!

Flower and Song, Plate 2 of the Codex Borbonicus

Flower and Song, Plate 2 of the Codex Borbonicus

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Colloquies Of The Twelve

I have quite the research treat for you tonight, dear reader!  After quite some time patiently hunting and following threads (and guessing the correct URL behind a broken link when one last barrier tried to put an end to my quest), I successfully tracked down the only English, full-text translation of an important Conquest-era work… the Colloquios y doctrina christiania (“Dialogues and Christian Doctrine”), often known to English speakers by its nickname “The Colloquies of the Twelve.”

The bilingual Nahuatl/Spanish text dates to about 1564 and was penned by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún.  The work concerns itself with recording a series of debates between Mexican religious and political authorities and a team of twelve friars sent by the Spanish crown to attempt to destroy the indigenous faith.  These verbal battles took place in the early 1520’s, shortly after the fall of the Aztec empire.  While Sahagún didn’t reach Mexico until 1529 and thus was a few years too late to have witnessed these discussions himself, he did consult ten out of twelve of the friars, as well as four Mexica informants and four eminent native scholars (Antonio Valeriano, Alonso Vegeriano, Martin Jacobita, and Andres Leonardo), in order to reconstruct the debates (albeit in a highly-poetic and dramatic form).

The lone surviving manuscript was lost for over three hundred years until it was rediscovered in the Vatican archives in the early twentieth century.  Sadly, of the thirty chapters, only fourteen have endured the ravages of time.  It received a German translation by Zelia Nuttall in the 1940’s, but remained untranslated into English until 1978, thanks to the effort of Jorge Klor de Alva (the first complete modern Spanish translation was executed by Miguel Leon-Portilla in 1977).  Its first and only publication was in the final issue of Alcheringa: Ethnopoetics, Volume Four, Number Two, published by Boston University in 1980.  This printing is the one I present you with today.

Click HERE to access the downloadable PDF containing the Colloquies of the Twelve at Alcheringa’s online archive.

I also recommend poking around in other volumes in Alcheringa’s archives, as they have quite a bit of interesting stuff back there, including more Mesoamerican research and several recordings of indigenous poetry recitations.  Thumbs up to Boston University for releasing these archives to the public, including the audio recordings that came with issues of this journal.

P.S. — As a bonus, this particular volume also includes several interesting Mayan legends I haven’t encountered anywhere else, and, related to my previous post, Thelma D. Sullivan’s full text translations of several birth/pregnancy huehuetlatolli speeches from Book 6 of the Florentine Codex.

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Book of the Colloquies; The Aztec-Spanish Dialogues of 1524. English edition translated and edited by Jorge Klor de Alva. Alcheringa/Ethnopoetics vol 4, no. 2:52—193.  1980.


Astronomical Alignments at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, Mexico

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.

Courtesy link to the original video at Psydarketo’s YouTube page.

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WorldCat Citation

Šprajc, I. (January 01, 2000). Astronomical alignments at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, Mexico.Archaeoastronomy, 31, 25, 11-40.


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.


Ballads of the Lords of New Spain & the Cantares Mexicanos

Fantastic news!  I recently picked up a copy of John Bierhorst’s English translation of the Ballads of the Lords of New Spain (better known as the codex Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España), and discovered a note in the prefatory material of great interest.  The University of Texas and Stanford University have completed an incredibly generous project, something that I’ve been hoping someone would do for years.  Enough suspense, I’ll tell you what it is now.

Complete, full-text copies of both the Romances and the Cantares online, complete with commentary and material for comparative study of the two song texts, a Nahuatl-English concordance dictionary, relevant photos and scans from various codices relating to poetry and music, and even audio of performances of some of the actual sixteenth-century drum rhythms intended for the teponaztli, or wooden slit drum, based on the only piece of sheet music preserved recording actual Aztec music.

Folks, this is a huge deal, I can’t state it strongly enough.  This is the vast majority of pre-Conquest and early Colonial Aztec poetry and song that has been preserved, in English and Nahuatl, searchable and complete, available for absolutely free, for the first time ever.  Most of this material has previously been extremely difficult to get a hold of or flat-out unavailable (no complete English edition of the Romances existed before 2009), not to mention expensive.  I own a near-mint paper copy of Bierhorst’s translation of the Cantares Mexicanos, which was produced in a limited run by Stanford University and has been out of print since 1985.  It took me almost two years of scanning numerous international book selling services online to eventually secure a copy for under $250.  You will never have to go through this difficulty and expense to study this collection of breathtakingly-beautiful poetry, as Stanford University has generously put a full copy of the Cantares Mexicanos on this same website in PDF format, that you can download for free.

Go HERE to the home page of the Ballads of the Lords of New Spain!

And go HERE to download a full PDF copy of the Cantares Mexicanos!

Also HERE for a full PDF copy of the Nahuatl-English Concordance & Dictionary volume for the Cantares Mexicanos!

Finally, go HERE for a list of post-publishing corrections to the Cantares!

In short, many thanks to the University of Texas, Stanford University, and Mr. Bierhorst for making this amazing resource available to all, it’s a move reminiscent of the great wave of public library and museum foundings in the USA in the 19th and early 20th centuries that have been such a force for learning and research.  To my readers, I highly encourage you to pick up a print copy of the Ballads in order to support more projects like these in the future, and to give back to those involved in this one.  Besides, it’s just nice to have a physical copy of a good book to curl up with.

I’ll be back to discuss these two works of Aztec poetry and song later on, but I just couldn’t wait to share these books with you now.  Happy reading!

Flower and Song, Plate 2 of the Codex Borbonicus

Flower and Song, Plate 2 of the Codex Borbonicus

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All links updated & more materials uploaded by U.Texas linked on 2/24/2013, courtesy of an alert reader.  Thanks M.P.!


As The Dust Settles

It’s taken a few days, but I’ve finally got the site fully restored and running again, including cleaning up all the links.  Fun fact — importing an old WordPress blog onto a new domain, still using their software, doesn’t auto-update links to pages and posts, internal or external.  When you realize that is when you also realize just how many links you’ve built up over the course of two years.  Good times.  On that note, if you spot any broken links while navigating the site, please shoot me a comment or email (cehualli <AT> hotmail <DOT> com), it’ll help me fix anything still wrong faster.

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Matters of housekeeping aside, I’d also like to point out that I’ve opened the Post-Colonial Modern History page in the History section with its first entry, a collection of John P. Schmal’s papers and research on the numerous indigenous nations within Mexico in the modern era, hosted on Somos Primos.  It’s valuable beyond its core informative value as it also serves to highlight the very important fact that, yes, the Aztecs (Mexica), the Maya, the Huaxtecs, and all the other indigenous peoples one frequently reads about in the past are not gone, they are still here, even if the Conquest and incorporation into a modern, European-style Republic has left its mark on their lifeways.  This might seem like an odd thing to make a big deal about, but it’s a serious issue when discussing First Nations people, as they’re so often stereotyped as archaic, vanishing, or extinct, creatures of the past, and these aren’t harmless cliches.  They hurt people, real, living people.  If you’d like to get a bit of an intro on the issue of damaging stereotyping, check out Adrienne K.’s recent posts on her blog, Native Appropriations, HERE and HERE.  If you’d like to dig deeper and read a concise paper on the results of a 2008 Stanford University study by Dr. Stephanie Fryburg, please go HERE for a downloadable PDF.