Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Posts tagged “incense burner

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

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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.


A Penitential Rite Of The Ancient Mexicans

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!

Click here to go read “A Penitential Rite of the Ancient Mexicans” by Dr. Zelia Nuttall!

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!

Jaguar Vessel

Jaguar Vessel


Study Of A Contemporary Huaxtec Celebration At Postectli

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

Tlaloc Seated on a Mountain Issuing Water, Plate 7 of the Codex Borbonicus

Tlaloc Seated on a Mountain Issuing Water, Plate 7 of the Codex Borbonicus


Daily Priestly Offerings Of Incense

I feel like talking about the ritual of offering copal incense today. More specifically, I’d like to go into more detail about how the tlamacazqui (priests) used to offer incense each day during the height of the Aztec Empire.

Copal was burned for the Teteo almost constantly in the temples. Sahagun records in Book 2 of the Florentine Codex that the priests would offer incense nine times each day. Four of these times fell during the day, five came at night. The four during the day were when then sun first appeared, at breakfast, at noon, and when the sun was setting. The five times at night were when the sun had fully set, at bedtime, when the conch shell trumpets were blown, at midnight, and shortly before dawn.

Sadly, we don’t have exact clock times for these nine offerings. Granted, some of them, such as the offerings at sunrise and sunset, would’ve drifted with the change in light levels as the seasons passed, while those like noon and midnight would’ve been fixed. The Spanish commentary in Book 7 of the Florentine Codex does state that one of the nighttime offerings was at 10PM. My guess is that one would’ve been either the one that coincided with bedtime or the blowing of the trumpets, as it had to be one of them between sunset and midnight. I would also bet that the offering at full dark is the one where the prayer to greet the night I discussed earlier took place. This would’ve been when the Fire Drill constellation rose into the sky.

Incidentally, it seems that the midnight incense offering was the most important of the nine. Sahagun specifically points out in some places that every priest was to wake at midnight and join in the offering of incense and blood via autosacrifice. This ritual was so important that the most trustworthy of the young priests were given the duty of holding vigil at night and waking their colleagues for this ceremony. Not only that, but those who failed to wake up and join in were punished severely, frequently by additional bloodletting or by a beating. The Aztec priesthood took its duties very seriously, and lapses in function were dealt with harshly.

Furthermore, many of the huehuetlatolli (“ancient words,” or moral discourses) recorded in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex make reference to the midnight offering of incense. The especially devout people, the “friends of Tezcatlipoca,” were dutiful in their observance of this celebration. They’re described as scorning sleep to rise and worship, sighing with longing for the presence of the god and crying out to Him. Judging by these references, it appears that the midnight incense offering was also important to the general nobility as well. Not too surprising, I suppose, as most of the nobility were educated in the calmecac school, the same school that trained the young priests. In a sense, every nobleman did a stint in seminary, though not everyone went on to become professional tlamacazqui.

The incense burner typically used by the priests was ladle-shaped and made of fired clay. The long handle was hollow and filled with pebbles, so it would rattle as the priest would move about. The handle was frequently sculpted to look like a snake, an animal commonly appearing in depictions of sacred things and beings. The hot coals and copal resin would go into the spoon-like cup on the end.

Who exactly received these nine offerings of incense is currently unknown to me. At many points in the Florentine Codex, where an incense offering is described in detail, the Four Directions are noted as receiving the sweet scent and smoke, in addition to any other deities being specifically addressed. Thus, the ladle would be raised to each direction, the prayers of the priest accompanied by the rattling of the stones in the handle. Sahagun notes that some of the nighttime offerings were directed to Yohualtecuhtli, the Lord of Night, and the dawn offering went to Tonatiuh, the Sun. The midnight offering typically shows up in the context of prayers to Tezcatlipoca, at least in the huehuetlatolli I have access to.

A Priest Offers Incense At A Temple, Plate 27 Of The Codex Fejéváry-Mayer

A Priest Offers Incense At A Temple, Plate 27 Of The Codex Fejéváry-Mayer